When my partner was pregnant with our first child, we took all of the classes and read all of the books in preparation for parenthood. During one of the lactation seminars, an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) asked me if I wanted to breastfeed my baby too. The woman told me I could take hormones to get my body to produce milk.
At first, I was offended. It felt like a knock against my non-gestational, non-biological connection to my baby. I assumed the woman thought I had to breastfeed in order to bond with my child. Then I was mortified. As a nonbinary person, I have severe body dysphoria around my breasts and my female body. The idea of being pregnant was terrifying; having a child need my breasts for nutrition was paralyzing.
Several years and three kids later, I’ve come to realize what a gift induced lactation is for so many non-gestational parents, even if it wasn’t right for me.
How Does Induced Lactation Work?
Lactation is essentially triggered by hormones. A pregnant body prepares the breasts for breastfeeding by producing increased amounts of progesterone, estrogen, and prolactin. When a baby is born, prolactin rises and estrogen and progesterone decrease, which triggers lactation. Breastfeeding is then a supply and demand system. More milk is made when milk is used. As the baby feeds, the feel-good hormone oxytocin is released and initiates the let down reflex. Boobs drain, hormones cycle, and more milk is made. It is a cycle that is not always easy—breastfeeding can be as frustrating and heartbreaking as it can be beautiful—but it is a chemical process that can be replicated without being pregnant.
Lactation can be induced to coincide with the child’s birth too. For instance, mom Sarah breastfed her first adopted son from the time he was 5 days old until he was 3. She is currently breastfeeding her second child, a 5-month-old adopted son.
“I made about 60-75% of [my older son’s] daily needs, and provided the rest through donor milk and formula in a Lact-Aid nursing supplementer so that all of his feeds were at the breast,” Sarah told Scary Mommy.
Like many non-gestational parents, Sarah followed the protocol designed by Dr. Jack Newman. Based on his success in helping Lenore Goldfarb, B.Comm, B.Sc, IBCLC induce lactation for her son born via surrogacy, he outlines very specific formulas for using birth control, domperidone, herbs, and stimulation or pumping. Non-gestational parents will likely not be able to produce enough supply to be the sole source of nourishment for their children. However, it is just as healthy as a birth parent’s supply. Dr. Newman’s protocol cites, “Studies have shown that if the breastmilk of a mother who has induced lactation is compared to that of a birth mother’s breastmilk at 10 days postpartum, there is virtually no difference.”
There is still stigma around breastfeeding, and the idea of induced lactation can be too much for some people. When asked if she received any negative feedback by her choice to breastfeed her adoptive babies Sarah, who is white, said this, “We didn’t meet my older son’s birth mom, but my younger son’s birth mom was fully on board with however I wanted to feed him. I was worried about the cultural differences with breastfeeding and what judgment I would get nursing two black sons, especially since we attend a Black Catholic church, but the community has been absolutely supportive and think the idea is fantastic.”
Sarah mentioned that her husband has been wonderfully supportive too and showed appreciation for an added benefit, “He will gladly hand over a teething baby for the only thing that helps…nursing!”
People Who Induce Lactation And Why
Breastfeeding is not exclusively for birth mothers. Adoptive parents, non-gestational mothers in same-sex relationships, transgender women and, yes, transgender men too, and mothers who become parents via surrogacy have used induced lactation as a way to feed and bond with their children.
Katie tried to get and stay pregnant for three years before her wife successfully got pregnant on the first try. In order to feel connected to her son, she chose to induce lactation months before her son was born. “I was still feeling very tender about the infertility and pregnancy losses and was perhaps a bit overly obsessed with the fear that we wouldn’t be connected and that I wouldn’t feel as much like his mom as my wife would.”
Katie’s wife happily supported Katie’s desire to breastfeed their baby. As a new mom, she was nervous about being the only one available to meet their baby’s food needs. “She was glad to have some possible help,” said Katie. By the time Katie’s son was born, there was a full supply of breast milk in the freezer, and Katie was the first one to nurse their son after he was born.
Sarah also mentioned the bond she felt with her sons during breastfeeding. The skin to skin contact, the physical connection, and emotional attachment benefited both of her sons’ development and health. Breastfeeding also provides positive physiological benefits to the nursing parent as well. There is a positive correlation between breastfeeding and a parent’s mood post-breastfeeding; the feel good hormone oxytocin being released during lactation is credited for this.
Katie pointed out something that many non-gestational or non-biological parents feel when in a same-sex relationship. “[Breastfeeding] did help me feel more like his mother, because other people viewed me as his mom. When I was in public nursing him, there was no question about whether I was his mom or not.”
Many transgender parents feel the stigma of both breastfeeding their children and being parents in the first place. Transgender men with healthy reproductive organs can become pregnant and birth healthy babies. And transgender women with healthy sperm can biologically create children as well. One transwoman, Sarah, featured on Trevor McDonald’s Milk Junkies website induced lactation after her wife becoming pregnant with their child. She was able to equally share breastfeeding duties with her wife after their son was born. Unfortunately, Sarah did not get the support and care she needed from professionals and medical staff.
“I think it’s a shame that so many people don’t think about trans people’s bodies being capable of breastfeeding, and that they don’t consider and value the breastfeeding relationship. They think it’s just about gestational moms and that no one else can do it. That presents two problems: how they think about breastfeeding, and how they think about trans people as well.”
Despite the negativity, Sarah described her breastfeeding relationship with her son as wonderful and amazing.
It doesn’t really matter what the reasons are behind a parent choosing to breastfeed their child or not. But it matters how we treat other parents, and it doesn’t cost anything to mind your own business. However, showing support to a parent trying to provide the best nutrients they can in a way that works for them and their baby is money in the bank. Be kind, people, even if parents are parenting differently than you are or lactating via induction.
If you are considering induced lactation, please consult your doctor and/or a certified lactation consultant.