Relactation is gaining more awareness amongst mothers, during a time where breastfeeding rates continue to be low in many developed countries around the globe.
The World Health Organization recommends babies are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months and then for breastfeeding to continue alongside complementary foods for two years and beyond.
Some mothers encounter breastfeeding challenges, which sometimes results in the use of formula.
In some cases, this then leads to a mother’s milk supply lessening and lessening and eventually completely drying up.
Fortunately, for mothers who wish to give breastfeeding another go, it can be possible for relactation to occur.
Relactation – everything you need to know
Relactation is the process of building up a milk supply at any time after having been pregnant.
Here are 4 questions about relactation answered:
#1: How can relactation occur?
Pregnancy and birth naturally set things into motion to prepare and cause your breasts to make milk. Once your breasts are making milk, milk removal is what keeps your breasts making milk.
However, breast/nipple stimulation (e.g. by a baby suckling and/or expressing), even in the absence of pregnancy, stimulates the production of prolactin (milk making hormone). Hence, especially if done often enough, a baby suckling and/or expressing can stimulate your breasts to make milk.
If a woman starts making milk even if she’s never been pregnant, this is referred to as induced lactation. If a woman has been pregnant, the process of building a supply is referred to as relactation. This article is about relactation for your own weaned biological child.
#2: How easy is it to relactate?
There is wide variation in how easily different mothers can relactate. While most mothers will be able to establish a partial supply, others may be able to get back to full breastfeeding and others may struggle to relactate at all.
Relactation tends to work best if a mother has a strong desire to relactate, knowledge about breastfeeding, a baby who can suckle at the breast (or a quality pump) and a good support network (including a lactation consultant).
#3: How do I relactate?
There are generally two main methods of relactating – a baby suckling at the breast or expressing (or a combination of both). What works best for you depends on your own individual circumstances.
The simplest, and likely most effective, way to relactate is by your baby suckling at your breast. The more frequently your baby suckles at your breast, the more likely your breasts will respond and make milk.
If you try to put your baby to your breast but he doesn’t seem interested, the following tips can help encourage him:
- Be flexible and imaginative about when to offer a breastfeed, but never force. For example, many reluctant babies are more likely to breastfeed when they are calm and relaxed (e.g. when they are half asleep or have just woken from a sleep). Some babies who refuse to feed during the day might attach and suckle well at night for this reason.
- If you’re using bottles, bottle nursing can help (i.e. making any bottle feeds more like breastfeeding). You can read here about this.
- A breastfeeding supplementer can be a great help. This device allows your baby to suckle at the breast and be supplemented at the same time. This means your baby gets rewarded for his sucking efforts at a breast that may have little or no current supply. Breastfeeding is so much more than just about the milk. It’s a relationship with a baby. So, even if you find you’re unable to relactate to make a full supply, if breastfeeding your baby makes you feel happy, then no matter how much (or little) milk you make, that is ‘successful’ breastfeeding.
- A nipple shield could help encourage your baby onto the breast.
- Offering a bottle feed to calm your hungry baby and then offering the breast could help. Some mothers have found it helpful to put a bottle teat filled with milk over their nipple.
- Enjoying plenty of skin-to-skin time with your baby.
- Try baby-led attachment. A baby (especially if under three months of age) may be more likely to seek the breast, attach and begin suckling if he uses his instincts to do so. This is referred to as baby-led attachment. You can read more about this here .
- If possible, stimulating your let-down reflex just before trying to put your baby to your breast can help, so that he gets an immediate reward once he starts suckling. A combination of relaxation techniques, breast massage and hand expressing can help stimulate a let-down reflex.
If your baby won’t attach and suckle, you can express to relactate.
There are many different methods of expressing. If you’re trying to relactate, pumping about 8 times in 24 hours (including at least once overnight) using a hospital grade electric pump is generally most ideal. These pumps are designed for infinite use and can be hired from many local pharmacies or from some local Australian Breastfeeding Association groups.
Pumping frequently for short periods of time (e.g. 5 minutes or so) is better to help build supply as compared to longer less frequent pumping sessions. As a supply builds, you can increase the suction level and length of time you express.
Many mothers find double pumping works best. It can save time and some research suggests it can result in greater amounts of milk being expressed.
After using a pump, finishing up with even a few minutes of hand expressing can help encourage your breasts to make more milk.
BellyBelly has some great articles on expressing filled with many helpful tips. See Choosing A Breast Pump – 4 Things You Need To Know, 5 Tips To Help You Express Breastmilk Like A Pro, Hand Expressing Your Breastmilk In 4 Easy Steps and Expressing And Storing Breastmilk.
If you have some luck at getting your baby to attach and suckle sometimes, but not often, you could combine expressing with breastfeeding.
#4: Are there any substances to take to help relactate?
Frequent and effective milk removal is by far the most important aspect of trying to build up a breastmilk supply.
Nonetheless, some mothers find some substances (called galactagogues) helpful. Before deciding to take a galactagogue, discuss it with your doctor.
Some final thoughts on relactation…
If you’re thinking about relactating, it can help to work with a lactation consultant, especially for the support. If it helps to do so, a lactation consultant can help explore why breastfeeding may have ceased and try to find out ways how this may be able to avoided again.
It’s really important to remember that no two mother’s journeys are the same. Each mother’s breastfeeding journey is different and any journey of relactation is different too.
You may also like to read the following BellyBelly articles:
- 3 Inspirational Relactation Stories
- When Breastfeeding Doesn’t Work Out – 9 Tips To Help