Deciding if you should breastfeed, formula feed or do a bit of both is already one of the most stressful decisions many mamas face. Now with difficulty finding formula on shelves due to national supply shortages, relactation, or beginning to breastfeed again after a period of time not nursing, may be the next best option for some families.
Wondering if you can re-lactate to breastfeed your baby?
First, says midwife Diana Spalding, CNM, "consult with a lactation consultant and a doctor who can give you the best information for your specific scenario." Your lactation counselor or doctor can understand your particular situation best and will help determine appropriate next steps.
And remember, if you're facing a formula shortage, you can contact your pediatrician for help accessing emergency supplies—many offices stock free samples of formula. You can read more here about how to get help finding formula, if needed.
Feeling intense pressure to breastfeed can be harmful to a mother's mental health, so if you need formula don't be afraid to ask for help getting it. Formula feeding is a valid way to bond with your baby—no one should make you feel otherwise.
How to start relactation
If you're committed to attempting relactation, there is a regimen women can follow. La Leche League, an organization that provides breastfeeding research and support for women and babies, recommends the following steps:
- Hand express or pump at least eight to 12 times per day for 20-30 minutes, including at night
- Give expressed/pumped milk and supplements in a cup, or use an at-breast supplementer
- If baby will latch on, put them to your breast before and after each feeding
- Put baby to your breast for comfort between feedings as often as possible instead of using a dummy/pacifier—it will help build your milk supply
- Get support from your local LLL group/Leader—find local support here.
LLL also notes that the commitment to re-lactate is a major one—requiring breastfeeding up to six hours a day.
During attempted re-lactation, the World Health Organization recommends looking for signs of good attachment (chin touching beast, mouth wide open, lower lip turned out, more areola visible above than below mouth) and slow deep sucks from baby. You can find relactation support groups on Facebook, including one from La Leche League.
Other researchers have found that relactation works best with babies who are under 6 months old and were recently weaned, although it may be possible to relactate if your child is under 1 year old. Some mothers like to start eating and drinking common galactagogues, or milk-producing foods, when attempting to relactate.
Full relactation may not be possible for all women, and public health experts recommend committing two weeks to this intensive regimen to attempt to fully relactate.
To make sure your baby is getting adequate milk during relactation, count wet diapers (you're aiming for at least six in a 24 hour period), and weigh baby weekly to track weight gain, and/or before and after a feed, to see how many ounces baby is getting. If you don't have an infant scale available, you can hold baby on a scale together, and then alone without baby, and subtract your weight.
Relactation is a common topic during major disasters, where parents who had been using formula for their infants suddenly have trouble accessing an adequate supply of formula, due to displacement, natural disaster, disease or other factors.
When attempting relactation, says Diana Spalding, CNM, "remember that this isn't going to easy—but it is going to be so worth it."
A version of this post originally appeared on April 14, 2020. It has been updated.