Is It Too Late to Start Breastfeeding? What to Know

when is it too late to breastfeed

The first few days of motherhood, flooded with hormones and reeling from childbirth, can be overwhelming.

Labor can take a toll, sometimes leaving a new mom physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. While some mothers easily take to breastfeeding, for others it can range from challenging to downright impossible.

While it’s ideal to start breastfeeding immediately after the baby is born, there are plenty of reasons why some moms aren’t able to. We all know that the more you nurse, the more milk your body will produce, so when it proves difficult or impossible in those early days, it can be frustrating.

This now-or-never attitude towards nursing can make a new mom feel like if she doesn’t start right away, she’ll miss her window. When nursing can begin right after birth, it sets up good habits and instigates milk production.

But it’s not always that simple and there are many factors that can get in the way.

There are a variety of reasons why mothers find themselves unable to nurse their newborn baby, in addition to total exhaustion. If the infant is in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) or born premature, if breast milk production is slow, if the mom is experiencing postpartum depression or other maternal medical issues, or in cases of adoption or surrogacy.

Some moms have to stop nursing temporarily due to a medication they’re taking if they wean their babies when they go back to work, if they’re having latching issues, or if she has the inability to produce a full milk supply. In other instances, mothers may have introduced baby formula and it isn’t being tolerated well.

It’s widely agreed that breast milk is the perfect food for infants. Colostrum is the very first breast milk produced, followed by transitional milk, and finally mature milk.

It contains important antibodies and nutrients that help build a baby’s immune system, fight off bacteria and viruses, and lead to better overall health. In addition, it strengthens the bond between mother and baby. Reasons to breastfeed abound.

If you weren’t able to breastfeed initially, decided not to or had to stop temporarily, you might be wondering if it’s not too late to start or start over. The good news is, that regardless of the reason, experts agree that it’s never too late to start nursing your baby. Reestablishing milk production is possible and the earlier you start, the better.


When Is It Too Late to Start Breastfeeding?

You can restart your breastfeeding journey at any point in motherhood through a process called relaxation. Even if you’ve never been pregnant and you plan to adopt or have a child through a surrogate, you can use induced lactation to produce breast milk.

These processes require patience, time, and commitment, but with the right plan in place and a good attitude, successful relocation is possible.

So, when is it too late to start breastfeeding? Never!


Can You Start Breastfeeding Again After You Stop? 

Absolutely. No matter how long you’ve stopped, whether it’s been weeks or months, you can successfully train your body to make milk again through relactation and train a bottle-fed baby to take the breast.

While studies show that infants under 4 months old are easier to retrain, babies of any age can successfully breastfeed again. If you’ve stopped nursing for any reason, rest assured that you can start again.

In addition to the baby’s age, some other factors can make the process easier including, previous pregnancies, breastfeeding other babies, and the longer you’ve spent nursing, the smoother it will be. Muscle memory is a powerful thing and the more milk-related memories your body has, the easier it will be to reintroduce.


Will Your Baby Want to Breastfeed If You’ve Already Switched to Formula?

Breastfeeding comes naturally to babies and even formula-fed babies will often instinctively take to nursing. Like introducing anything new, however, it can take time, consistency, and patience. While breastfeeding is innate to babies of any age, change takes time and the more opportunities they have to nurse, the easier it will be.

Luckily, even if there is little to no milk, babies will usually happily nurse simply for comfort. Be sure to switch breasts as you reintroduce breastfeeding. This will go a long way to help with stimulating milk production.

If you’re having trouble getting your baby to nurse, try introducing the breast in the middle of bottle-feeding. You can also use pumping to increase your milk supply and feed a bottle-trained baby breast milk as you work to transition back to breastfeeding.


What is Relactation?

Relactation is the process of resuming breastfeeding after a period of no or very little breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that even if you’re unable to reestablish nursing as the sole source of nutrition for your baby, relactation can allow you to maintain a breastfeeding relationship and many of the benefits that come with it.

Frequent suckling and other forms of nipple stimulation, including an electric breast pump are extremely helpful in relactation. You might need as many as 8-10 feeding sessions a day, plus night sessions, in order to stimulate milk production.

Some doctors may prescribe drugs like metoclopramide to adoptive mothers or to mothers who haven’t breastfed in a long time in order to instigate the production or reproduction of breast milk. This process is called induced lactation.


How Long Does Relactation Typically Take? 

Relactation will not happen overnight and it’s likely to be a more successful and more pleasurable experience if you set realistic expectations.

Your baby might resist breastfeeding sessions for a week or two before it becomes routine for them and it could take weeks for you to establish a robust milk supply.

It might be a good idea to ask for help, both professional and otherwise. Talking to a good lactation consultant can tell you what to expect, offer support, and provide instruction for moms looking to reintroduce breastfeeding. Friends and family can also be tremendously helpful in offering suggestions, especially if they’ve had a similar experience.

You’ll need regular breast stimulation, whether it’s through infant suckling or pumping. Count on 15-20 minute sessions at least 8-10 times per day. Even with consistent practice, you may only produce a few drops of milk in the first week or so. But don’t be discouraged – if you stick with it, most moms report full relactation in about a month.

As your body begins to produce breast milk during relactation, be sure to supplement your baby’s nutritional needs with formula as needed and until you’re producing a full supply. Consulting a lactation consultant or pediatrician can be helpful in finding the right balance. A good amount of wet diapers can be helpful in making sure your baby is well-hydrated.

As your baby adjusts from formula to breast milk, you will likely see changes in bowel movements. Formula-fed babies have more solid poops, which are light brown and usually the consistency of peanut butter. Bowel movements from breastfed babies are typically watery, yellow, and seedy.


10 Tips to Help You Successfully Relactate

Okay, so you’ve decided to reintroduce breastfeeding to your baby and you want to begin the process of relactation. Whether you’ve already introduced infant formula, struggled with nursing the first time around, or had to stop temporarily, there are some things you can do to make the process easier and increase your chances of success.

The most important thing is to be consistent. Fortunately, most babies are comforted by nursing even if there is no milk. The more they nurse, the more it stimulates milk production, and the more likely they are to stay on the breast.

This cycle will naturally aid in relactation. Here are a few more tips to make it as successful as possible.

1. Bonding

Spend as much time with your baby as possible, including lots of skin-to-skin contacts which can soothe your baby and stimulate milk production. Consider wearing your baby in a sling or front carrier for added closeness throughout the day.

2. Regular suckling

Nurse your baby often, as much as every hour when possible, especially in the beginning. Relactation requires consistent, frequent nipple stimulation. If you’re struggling to get a good latch, try breastfeeding at night or when the baby is half asleep.

Hunger cues include:

  • Rooting, or when the baby moves its head from side to side as if seeking the breast.
  • Sucking motions or noises
  • Smacking or licking lips
  • Putting hands or fingers in mouth
  • Turning toward your finger when you touch their face or cheek

3. Look for hunger cues

Be on the lookout for signs that your baby is hungry and feed them before they get too hungry and fussy.

4. Breastfeed at night

Take advantage of nighttime feeds as often as possible. This is the time when prolactin is highest, which is the hormone that stimulates milk production.

5. Use a breast pump

If possible, use a double-sided, electric breast pump to stimulate milk production even when your baby isn’t feeding. Bonus tip: use your pump to mimic cluster feeding and have a “power pumping” session– 20 minutes on, 10 minutes off, for one hour.

6. Handheld breast pump

Whether in addition to an electric pump or in place of it, a handheld, silicone breast pump, like this one, can be helpful. You can use it between feeds or on the other breast, while your baby is feeding. Capturing every ounce is important, especially in the beginning.

7. Breast compression

While your baby is nursing, gently massage your breast to better stimulate milk production. This can help with letdown, the process of milk flowing from your milk ducts out to the nipple.

8. Take good care of yourself

Be sure you’re eating well, getting plenty of fluids, and lots of rest. The healthier you are, the more productive your milk will be.

9. Incorporate galactagogues

Galactagogues are any food, herbs, supplements, or prescription that are believed to help increase your milk supply. You can find out more about galactagogues here. Popular herbal supplements include fenugreek, blessed thistle, and goat’s rue.

10. Relax and enjoy

Try to make breastfeeding sessions relaxing and enjoyable. The more relaxed you are, the more likely you’ll be at successfully relactating. Nursing your baby is a beautiful, bonding experience, and as you work toward reestablishing your milk supply, enjoy the time with your little one.


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