Alex Smith: The why and how of induced lactation and shared breastfeeding

Why would anyone want to encourage their body to produce breast milk, if they’ve never been pregnant or had a baby?

In a worldview comprised of mum, dad, and 2.5 kids, inducing lactation or sharing breastfeeding often doesn’t rate much of a mention. But there are many situations in which inducing lactation, or sharing breastfeeding between both parents, makes sense. In circumstances involving lesbian parents, surrogacy, and/or adoption, for example, non-gestational parents may feel strongly that they would like to breastfeed their child – this might be something already raised by your partner (along the lines of “wouldn’t it be great if we could share this!”) or it might be something that you would dearly like to do, as a means of connection with a child who you are raising but just haven’t carried in utero.

If you’ve made a decision that you would like to induce lactation and/or share breastfeeding, there are a few things to consider, and some different options for how to go about it. This is a short snapshot – so if you want to know more, check out some of the resources mentioned.

Inducing Lactation: Supply, demand, and encouraging a baby to the breast

The physiology of breastfeeding can be very briefly summed up as: Baby suckles at breast – Body gets signal to release milk – Milk is removed from the breast – Body gets the signal to make more milk – Repeat. In the case of induced lactation, the process is much the same – stimulate breasts, body gets the signal to start making and releasing milk, remove milk, make more milk. The main difference is that in induced lactation, that process is being commenced through something other than the birth and at-breast-feeding of a baby!

In many situations of induced lactation (e.g. surrogacy or adoption), some women choose to start breast stimulation by expressing regularly before their baby arrives, so that the woman’s body has already begun the process of starting lactation and building supply in response to that stimulation and removal of milk. Expressing in a way that replicates a newborn’s feeding patterns is usually recommended – e.g. at least 8 times per day, including overnight to help maximise prolactin (the milk production hormone) – and many women find a combination of hand expression, and the use of a double electric pump, helps makes this process most effective and efficient.

Some mothers will opt to take supplementary medications and herbs to assist in this process of initiating milk production, as well, and this is an option you may want to discuss with your health professional.

Once the baby arrives, the mother can then encourage lots of skin-to-skin time as a pathway to initiating at-breast feeding (and some mums choose to use an at-breast supplementing device to help with this transition). If the baby is ultimately attached and feeding well, over time this breastfeeding can take the place of pumping to remove the milk. Some mums find that they are able to move to exclusive breastfeeding without the need for breast milk or formula top ups; while others might find that they need to supplement longer term.

For information on inducing lactation, and hints and tips on encouraging a baby to initiate at-breast feeding, check out this page and the associated resources listed.

Shared Breastfeeding: How might it work? 

In a situation where the gestational parent is going to be breastfeeding following the birth of their child, there may not be the same need for the non-gestational parent to pump or otherwise prepare for milk production in advance – their baby will be receiving all the breast milk they need from the gestational mum, so there’s a certain luxury of time available in which breastfeeding can be established and lactation kickstarted in a low-pressure environment. Some women do, however, choose to start preparing for induced lactation ahead of time, through some or all of the above techniques.

Some things to consider when planning for shared breastfeeding:

  • How do both you and your partner feel about sharing the experience (including both the good and potentially less positive aspects!) of breastfeeding? It’s important to communicate from early on, and to continue the discussion – because the situation can change over time.
  • Do you have a sense of whether one of you will be the ‘primary’ breastfeeder? This may involve factors such as return-to-employment commitments, as well as considerations such as whether the non-gestational-but-stay-at-home partner might then choose to start inducing lactation ahead of time to give their body as much chance as possible to establish an adequate milk supply. For one couple’s perspective on how they approached shared breastfeeding in a situation where the gestational mother returned to work, while her partner became the stay-at-home day-time breastfeeding mother, check out this article.
  • How is your baby responding to the situation? Some babies (and mothers!) may take a bit longer than others to get the hang of breastfeeding, and to ensure milk supply is established – this might mean holding off on introducing a second breastfeeding parent to the equation until things are running a little more smoothly. In the meantime, the non-gestational mother may continue to hand express or use an electric pump to help maintain supply. Of course, in some situations, encountering challenges might conversely mean that having someone ready to step in and provide a breastfeed is a real positive! Again, this will depend on your personal circumstances and how you and your baby feel.
  • Have you both obtained quality, up-to-date breastfeeding information and support that will help you to maximise your chances of establishing and maintaining the breastfeeding relationship you desire? Things like establishing supply, understanding indicators of adequate supply, how to ensure effective positioning and attachment, and having great support networks in place, are important for every breastfeeding relationship. If you’re in Australia, you can call the Australian Breastfeeding Association on 1800 686 286 any time, or go to the website for information, day or night. If you’re located outside of Australia, La Leche League International provides support to women in many countries, and also maintains a wonderful website.
  • What if it’s not really working like we imagined it would? – It’s impossible to predict how any breastfeeding relationship will pan out, so like any situation, take it day by day. Keep communicating with your partner, keep watching your baby for those indicators that they’re doing well, and rest assured that if shared breastfeeding doesn’t work out as you’d imagined – there are still so many ways for you to be a nurturing, present parent and partner.

It’s important to remember that every experience of breastfeeding – induced, shared, or otherwise – is going to be unique. How you approach shared breastfeeding is going to depend on your family’s circumstances, how your baby responds, and how you and your partner feel about the experience as time goes on. Continuing to talk about, and observe, how things are going is key to ensuring that you, your partner, and your baby all thrive.

About Alex Smith

Alex Smith
Alex is a breastfeeding, babywearing, attachment parenting kind of mum to two gorgeous kids. She is also a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor, PhD student in anthropology, and treechanger in league with her partner, Tim. To fill all the spare time in between, she focusses her attention on coffee, reading good books, and daydreaming about planting out vast, productive gardens.