Relactation: What Every Mother Should Know
This week, a concerned mother and frontline worker asked me about COVID-19 and how to protect her new baby from illness.
I am a firm believer in the power of food as medicine, exercise for the prevention of illness, and regular doses of sunshine.
Right now, we are all faced with a health crisis which no one fully understands. The long term implications of Coronavirus are largely unknown at this time. This reality can leave parents feeling overwhelmed. How can we protect the youngest members of our society from Coronavirus infection?
My response: the answer is breastfeeding. Human milk contains a large amount of leukocytes and secretory IgA. These are antibodies formed by mothers when exposed to pathogens. They prevent pathogens from attaching to the cells of an infant. Early analysis of mothers who have had COVID-19 or have been exposed to coronavirus patients indicates that antibodies in these women are being manufactured in the same way. (1)
Your milk is a natural immune boost with antibodies made specifically to account for your environment. This is why every single drop counts!
Relactation holds a special place in my life. Mothers can lose milk due to illness, pregnancy, or trauma. When I had my second child, I dealt with birth trauma and postpartum trauma. My milk had all but dried up when I made a last ditch effort to relactate.
At two weeks postpartum and one week dry, I began a strict nursing and pumping regimen. I let my baby nurse for five minutes on each side, hooked up to a pump, and fed her a bottle. I was very discouraged but kept going, one day at a time. I remember crying when, a week later, I managed to produce my first tiny drops. It wasn't even enough to fill the flange and go into the bottle, but it gave me the hope to persist. Everyone (except my husband) told me it was a lost cause. I kept trying.
Eventually, I had “just enough” for my baby.
I have always been a “just enougher.” I never had bags and bags of breastmilk stored. I say this because I want you to know that you don’t have to produce bags and bags to enjoy the benefits of breastfeeding.
Very recently, I relactated a second time. In fact, I’m still producing milk from my second relactation. The situation is a little different, but my strategy was the same. It still worked.
I was nursing a toddler who went on a nursing strike. A few weeks in, I suffered some illness and then discovered I was pregnant. All of these things are milk supply killers.
My toddler, almost two, was done nursing except for naps and bedtime. I was a dedicated milk donor as well. My goal was to maintain my supply for donation. Just like before, I nursed my toddler, then pumped, then rested, then pumped again. You can see pictures of my results below.
This post is in no way meant to put down women who cannot breastfeed, but to encourage those who had tried but were unsuccessful. You don't have to be producing any milk to relactate. You can relactate even if you haven’t given birth recently.
Relactation is the process of triggering milk production from breasts that have stopped making milk. With support and determination, relactation is possible. Some mothers will not fully regain their previous supply volume. Any milk is good milk, and every drop counts!
Relactation will require stimulation of the nipple and areola by baby, pump, or hand expression every 2-3 hours. This stimulation will tell your body to start making milk again—supply will meet the demand. In general, the more demand your body interprets, the more you will produce.
Ideally, you should have plenty of skin to skin contact during this time to help stimulate production. You should also empty your breasts as often as possible. Stimulating production is not about the length of time spent stimulating. Frequency and consistency of stimulation are much more important factors.
The process of relactation often takes several weeks to yield results. However, if you have lost supply volume and are looking to increase it, the process may be shorter.
There is no special medication, cookie, or tincture to trigger this milk production. Your body will recognize the need to make milk and respond.
If your baby will still latch, you can also consider using a nursing supplementer at the breast. This will provide you the best stimulation and give your baby the “reward” for nursing. Babies tend to break the seal of the breast if there is not any flow, which can be painful. This technique encourages your baby not to break the seal and helps them relearn how to latch successfully.
Breastmilk also qualifies as an emergency food per the WHO. Although unlikely, in the event of baby formula shortages due to supply chain disruptions, breastfeeding will become even more crucial to mothers. In short, there is no better time to look into this! I urge mothers who can continue to breastfeed during this time to do so. Support is always available to you. (2)