Sadly, despite our best efforts, attempts and hopes, sometimes things can still go wrong during pregnancy and childbirth. The baby that was much longed for and already loved very deeply is taken from the world too soon.
During this period, not only are the parent’s experiencing grief, sadness and anger common and expected, but it’s also likely that the mother’s body will go through its own emotional trials and cycles.
Although our bodies are intelligent, intuitive and instinctive, if a baby is lost during labour often the body does not realise what has happened and continues to proceed with ‘work as usual’.
This means that the natural changes expected with the birth of a new baby will still occur, even though there is no baby to take care of. One of these changes is lactation and the production of breast milk. When this happens, it can cause a bereaved mother both emotional and physical pain.
This article talks about lactation after loss of an infant and what to expect with regard to breast milk supply.
Lactation after loss
Often, even after a baby dies, a new mum can still experience breast milk production and supply. How much milk your body makes varies, depending on your circumstances.
Because it’s usual for milk to come in after three days (when you’re probably no longer in the hospital) it can be unexpected and somewhat confronting to have to deal with your body producing milk when you are alone at home.
Empty Arms Bereavement Support advises that whatever reaction the mother has to producing milk after losing a baby is natural and acceptable. Some mothers will find comfort in their body’s ability to produce milk, while others will be upset and uncomfortable with lactation after loss.
What is most important is that mothers in this situation do not blame themselves for what has happened or ‘lock-up’ their emotions. Grieving and mourning are completely natural and needed during this process.
The decision about how to handle lactation after loss is then completely in the hands of the mother.
There are a few options when deciding what to do with your milk supply. You can:
- Take prescription medication to stop lactation
- Take herbs, homeopathics, teas or other natural methods to stop milk production
- Let your body do what it needs to do naturally and express milk for comfort, until your milk supply gradually disappears (it might take a few weeks)
- Consider expressing milk and donating breast milk to a milk donation organisation.
Women’s reactions to lactation after loss are varied but many women, when given time and space to decide, opt to lactate and wait for the breast milk to go away naturally.
Controlling breast milk production after infant loss
Once lactation has occurred, the mother might choose to allow the breast milk to slow naturally, or she might actively reduce the breast milk production and suppress lactation.
In both instances, she will need to manage the day-to-day reality (and sometimes discomfort) of her body’s breast milk production. Empty Arms suggests expressing (via hand or breast pump) just enough milk to relieve breast engorgement or discomfort but not so much that you have completely drained the breast. This is especially important if you express milk with a breast pump. Removing too much milk sends signals to the body to make even more breast milk.
By regularly hand expressing small amounts of milk, it will also prevent infections and blocked milk ducts – which can progress to mastitis if left untreated. If the mother experiences any breast pain or tenderness or feels ill, aching or feverish, the Children’s Hospital Minnesota advises calling a local doctor or midwife to help.
To ease the initial discomfort, Empty Arms suggests you try some of the following:
- Take a warm bath or shower and make sure that the water runs over your breasts
- Wear a firm bra that is not too restrictive, with breast pads to absorb excess milk (if you leak milk)
- Use ice packs, cold compresses or cold cabbage leaves if the breasts feel uncomfortably full; apply them for between 5 and 15 minutes
- Drink sage tea, which is said to reduce milk production.
Over the counter pain relief can be used if you are experiencing excessive discomfort or breast pain.
Donating your milk to a breast milk bank
One option when dealing with lactation after loss is to donate the breast milk to others. Often, organisations use donated breast milk for babies who are born ill or very premature, or to give to babies of mothers who are experiencing difficulties in breastfeeding.
Breast milk banks work by collecting expressed milk that has been frozen. It is then pasteurised, treated and checked and passed on to the baby. As long as the mother doesn’t smoke or take illegal drugs, hasn’t had a blood transfusion or tested positive for hepatitis B or C, HIV, syphilis or HTLV, the donor milk should be accepted.
There are Milk Bank Associations in most countries and cities that accept milk donation. For further information about donating breast milk in Australia, you can refer to Mothers Milk Bank.
Of course, this option is not for everyone and if you do not wish to donate milk it is totally understandable.
Suppressing lactation with prescription medication
Some bereaved mothers prefer to stop lactation as soon as possible after a stillbirth or infant loss.
Please do not feel guilty if suppressing lactation is the best option for you. There are prescription medications available for women who do not wish to experience lactation.
Dostinex is often used in this case and works most effectively if takes within 12-24 hours of birth.
Women’s stories of lactation after loss
Making a decision about what to do might feel overwhelming when you’re feeling so lost in grief.
Following are stories from women who speak about what they chose to do after a baby loss and why. As you will see, their reactions, thoughts and feelings are unique.
Idell – no medication
‘Ruby Rose came into this world at only 21 weeks. She stayed just long enough for us to hold her, kiss her and say goodbye. Those few moments seems to last for ever as I drank in every second of her life and savoured it, but even as the enormity of my loss was dawning on me, I could feel my body dancing to a completely different rhythm – a dance of joy and triumph at giving birth. The dance of endorphins being released and I chose not to fight it. I allowed myself to embrace the elation that comes in those moments after birth and for my body to feel every wonderful sensation. After all, I had given birth and nothing could change that.
‘A few days after I came home without my baby I was visited by a midwife, who asked me if I had begun lactating and I told her that I had. Her response was to offer me pills to stop the flow of milk and I asked her why I would want to do that. Her reasoning both distressed and angered me. She told me it might help me deal with the loss if I suppressed the flow of milk. I declined. My body had given birth but did not understand that the baby was dead and I felt, by taking pills to suppress my milk, I was denying it the chance to heal naturally and denying what I had been through.
‘I chose instead to acknowledge and honour the life I created and carried and to respect that my body had a process to go through. I found great comfort in doing so and really felt at peace with the loss of my child. In allowing my body to prepare to nurture a life, even though that life no longer existed, I was still a mother.
‘Losing a child at any time is devastating but during pregnancy or at birth it is even harder; however, if you can take the time to honour that birth and listen to your body, you can really heal and be at peace.
I had a caesarean with my first child and have lost every other child since, so had I not listened and embraced my body’s responses, I would never have known those wonderful moments and feelings’.
Sammie – medication
‘My milk came in 4 days after I lost my precious, sweet little boy. I was warned it could happen but I was such a shattered mess I did not remember. Sudafed dried it up pretty fast. Sigh’.
Evelyn – medication
‘I had to take two doses after I had my little angel, to dry up the milk. I didn’t want to have my supply reminding me of what I couldn’t bring home!’
Alison – No medication
‘I wish I had had the option of donating to a milk bank back in 1989. I think it would have helped a lot to know that some baby out there was getting what my baby no longer could’.
Resources to help
If you’d like some support from those who have been through the same experience, BellyBelly’s very supportive forum, Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Loss of a Child, will help. It also is important to get help from experienced healthcare providers.
If you or somebody you know has experienced a loss, please make sure that you contact the following organisations and institutions:
- Pregnancy Loss Australia (Formerly Teddy Love Club), which offers a bereavement support line
- Bears of Hope Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support
- Grieve Out Loud
- Sands Australia
- Bereavement Care Centre
- Pillars of Strength
- National Association for Loss and Grief
Most hospitals also offer counselling and support services, so make sure you speak to your doctor or midwife about available support. A lactation consultant can also offer lactation support after late miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss.
Dealing with the loss of a baby is an emotional, traumatic and upsetting time for both the mother and the rest of the family. Finding effective support networks during this time will help to ease the emotional pain and encourage progression through the various stages of the grieving process.