Relactation is the practice of stimulating milk production after it’s stopped. This stoppage happens a few days after breastfeeding was discontinued or even a few months. Knowing why a mother might want to do this and how it works can be important in understanding this process.
A mother may have stopped breastfeeding for a large number of reasons. She may have never initiated it and offered formula from the start, or she may have weaned once she thought her milk supply wasn’t enough only to realize that she was making adequate milk. Returning to work is another reason a mother might wean, as is undergoing a severe maternal illness where she was either too unwell or needed to take medications that weren’t compatible with breastfeeding.
However, not all mothers who wean wish they had, and this is where relactation comes in. A mother may want to relactate after weaning if she realizes that her baby is not tolerating formula well or once she decides that she wants to give pumping at work a try. She may also want to resume her breastfeeding relationship if her baby develops medical problems and the benefits of breast milk may be far more obvious in a medically fragile child.
The process of relactating involves a few general principles. The first is providing lots of skin-to-skin and access to the breast. For babies who have never nursed, it’s important to understand that they may not understand latching right away and that they may need extra time, support, and patience when it comes to learning to breastfeed. Feedings should be a time of enjoyment, not stress and frustration.
A supplemental nursing system (or SNS) is often used to help get babies back to the breast. This involves placing a small tube near the mother’s nipple. This tube is connected to a bottle or bag that contains expressed breast milk or formula. When the baby latches to the nipple, this tube is also in their mouth, so when they suck, they receive milk. The automatic positive feedback helps to encourage the baby to keep suckling, and this suckling stimulates the mother’s body to make and release her own milk.
Occasionally, medications are used to stimulate or increase a woman’s milk supply during relactation. It’s important that this is done under the guidance of a physician or lactation consultant. Other techniques that can be helpful include frequent pumping and breast compressions to further stimulate the breast to make milk.
During this whole process, the first principle must always be kept in mind: feed the baby! While a mother’s milk supply is being ramped back up, her baby must not starve in the meantime. Closely watching a baby’s weight as well as supplementing with donor breast milk or formula as needed may be part of this process, and a mother should not feel guilty during this time. Whether the baby eventually receives all his or her nourishment from the breast, or even just a part of it, the mother should be congratulated on her efforts and be reassured that any breast milk is better than none.
In general, the younger the baby is (such as less than 3 months old), the more successful relactation and getting back to the breast is. However, even if a baby does not latch at the breast, his mother may still be able to pump milk and offer it in a bottle so that he receives the benefits of his mother’s milk.
Reviewed by Sara Connolly, March 2020
- Relactation is the practice of stimulating milk production after it’s stopped.
- A mother who has weaned may wish that she hadn’t, and this is where relactation comes in.
- Lots of skin-to-skin time and breast stimulation is important in successful relactation.
- While a mother may not be able to develop a full milk supply again, any breast milk is better than none!