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Phoebe's Journey

Susan Cooper
Albuquerque NM USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No 4, July-August 2006, pp. 166-167.

When my son, Caleb, weaned at 15 months old, I had no idea that I would never conceive another child. How I regretted weaning him that early, because the years came and went, and there were no more children. After seven years of trying to conceive and all kinds of testing, surgery, and treatments, we found ourselves out of options for building our family the usual way. I had always been unwilling to consider adoption because I felt that my desires for another child were very much wrapped up in the physical aspects of childbearing: conceiving, giving birth, and breastfeeding. However, just as our hopes seemed to have died, I discovered that the long-carried burden of trying to conceive had been miraculously lifted, and that I wanted more than anything to adopt! Within a matter of weeks we had decided to adopt a child from China.

In November 2003 we sent our adoption dossier off to China, requesting a baby girl. I knew that our daughter would most likely be about a year old when we adopted her. During our wait for her, I started researching adoptive breastfeeding. Our adoption agency recommended using attachment parenting strategies in order to foster a strong, healthy attachment, and I considered breastfeeding to be the ultimate attachment tool. I found that there was very little in print about adoptive breastfeeding, and virtually nothing regarding teaching an older infant or toddler to breastfeed. In fact, most books assumed or even stated outright that it was only possible to breastfeed a child adopted as a newborn, and even then they were discouraging about it.

However, via the Internet I found people who had successfully taught toddlers to breastfeed. I learned that lactation is not just a postpartum event, but that actually all that is necessary is sufficient breast stimulation, and that, for example, in some cultures it is common for female relatives or friends to relactate in order to breastfeed a child who is separated from his/her mother due to work, political upheaval, or death. I also learned that the amount of milk I would produce would likely not be a big issue since our daughter would not be a young infant, but that the biggest challenge would be for her to give up her bottle nipple and learn to breastfeed, and that this process would probably take at least several months.

Two months before we expected to meet our daughter, I began the process of relactation. I started taking medication and an herbal tincture to help with lactation, and began pumping with an electric double pump, starting with four times per day and quickly working up to six to seven times per day. Within three weeks I started expressing drops, and by six weeks I was producing more than an ounce per day, which I stored in the freezer for our daughter-to-be.

In July 2004 we traveled to China and met Phoebe for the first time. She was 10 and a half months at adoption, a tiny little person weighing only 13 pounds, seven ounces. Her bottle had a nipple with a huge cut in it through which she basically chewed out formula (or rice cereal mixed with formula, as is common there). Phoebe initially showed a strong preference for my husband and rejected me at first, but as I carried her in a sling, bathed with her, and was her primary caregiver as much as possible, she began to prefer me within a few weeks.

Breastfeeding involves an intimacy that requires a certain degree of trust and attachment between mother and child, and for the first several months, whenever I offered the breast, Phoebe refused. At that stage in our relationship, breastfeeding was too intimate for her to contemplate. Instead, as a first step, I fed her the bottle in a breastfeeding position, skin-to-skin. We were getting to know each other, and it was wonderful to see her open up more and more to us each day—her eyes starting to light up when she saw me or my husband, and to jump into our arms when we picked her up after a nap.

My next strategy in working toward breastfeeding was to gradually transition Phoebe from a fast flow bottle nipple to a newborn, slow flow nipple so that the flow would be more similar to nursing. Then, after about four weeks, I filled her bottle nipple with milk, holding it over my breast, which she was willing to take on occasion during the first couple months.

Later on I tried a transitional technique that other adoptive moms had recommended: I threaded the tube of a supplemental nurser filled with my milk through a bottle nipple, again holding it over my breast. Using this was wonderful, as Phoebe was truly being fed at the breast, though via an artificial nipple. She "nursed" this way for six months as I continued to care for her in a way that would help build trust and the attachment relationship between us. I also showed her breastfeeding photos, video, and picture books, and attended La Leche League meetings so that she could see other children nursing in person.

With an active almost-toddler, I was only able to manage pumping four times per day, but my milk output gradually increased to six or seven ounces per day over the course of a year (note: my current milk supply is probably greater than this, since suckling is better stimulation than pumping). I was so happy to be able to give Phoebe my milk via bottle, or later in the supplemental nurser or sippy cup, because I know that even a few ounces of human milk per day is beneficial, especially for building a child's immature immunities.

Phoebe's willingness to take the breast began with touching her mouth to my breast, then playful one-second sucks, which increased in frequency. Seven months after her adoption was the first time she sucked more than once, and for comfort. The idea of nursing for comfort seemed to be an important component in her decision to begin breastfeeding, because almost every time she took the breast during her transition to full breastfeeding was for comfort, for instance when she had fallen or was tired and fussy.

However, after I had been working with her for about eight months she went through five weeks of completely refusing the breast, which was very discouraging to me. I wondered if she was ever going to nurse, though I felt strongly that everything I had done toward breastfeeding had been of great benefit to her attachment process.

I was overjoyed when at 19 months of age she nursed for the first time while drifting off to sleep. A few weeks later she took the breast while awake, again for comfort. That was a big day for us! I encouraged her by smiling at her and saying things like, "Isn't Mommy's milk good?" How delightful when she nodded in response, grinning.

Phoebe became a full-time breastfeeder nine months after her adoption on Mother's Day of this year (how appropriate!). She now nurses without a supplementer, usually three to five times per day. It is amazing to be able to share nursing with her—especially now that she is a busy toddler. It is so special to have those quiet, close times together each day.

Phoebe is about to turn three and is still going strong with nursing. I feel lucky to have such a surefire way of connecting with her each day, reinforcing our attachment as mother and daughter. I'm hoping that these years of nursing together will have a big payoff in the future, when attachment issues resurface for many adopted children.

Most people assume that breastfeeding is only for biological mothers; how wonderful to discover that, in fact, my body was designed to provide both sustenance and comfort for all of my children, whether biological or adopted, newborn or toddler. I'm looking forward to many more happy months of nursing with Phoebe.

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