Is it too late to start nursing?

Breastfeeding can feel pretty “now or never” – either you start when you’re in the hospital after giving birth, or you don’t start at all, and even if you do start, once you stop, you’re done. There are any number of factors that can get in the way of breastfeeding, though, from taking a medication that can show up in breast milk to changes in work or home life that make it difficult to breastfeed regularly, to just not having the energy to deal with a tricky latch until after a little recovery from giving birth.

Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing, though. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to breastfeed if you’ve stopped, or if you’ve never started, if you want to try, and have some time and energy to invest in the process, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to relactate and breastfeed again.

Who can relactate? 

While there’s no real cut off – it’s never too late to try relactation – the longer you wait to get started, the harder a time you and your baby will have. Factors that could get in the way of restarting include encouraging your body to produce milk, which is easiest soon after you give birth or stop breastfeeding, and encouraging a previously bottle-fed baby to latch on to the breast. It’s generally easiest to start trying to relactate around 3 months after giving birth or earlier, or shortly after stopping breastfeeding, if you did breastfeed for a while. It’s especially easier if your body produced a lot of milk to begin with, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to if yours didn’t. Babies older than 6 months and babies who have never breastfed before tend to have a bit of a harder time with relactation, but it’s still possible.

Milk produced by relactation can sometimes be enough to exclusively breastfeed with, but more often, it’s one part of what your baby needs, and you’ll need to supplement with formula in order to make sure they are getting enough calories in a day. This can feel discouraging, but the benefits that come from breastfeeding even a small amount could continue to help your baby out for years into the future as they grow.

Women who are as focused on having the experience of breastfeeding their babies as they are with the health benefits of breastfeeding tend to have a more satisfying relactation experience. 

How does relactation work? 

The two goals that need to be reached before you can begin breastfeeding, either for the first time or after a long break, are for your body to start producing milk, and for your baby to learn to latch onto your breast. Fortunately, these two goals can work together – both the best way to encourage lactation and the best way to teach your baby to latch is to give them plenty of chances to practice, since breast stimulation is the most important factor for encouraging relactation.

It is possible to use a manual or electric pump to stimulate the breast, and in many cases, it’s a combination of pumping and nursing that helps get lactation going again. Just like breastfeeding from the beginning, if you nurse or pump as often as your baby feeds, this regular breast stimulation will give accurate signals to your body about how much milk to produce. When you’re just starting out, this generally means nursing or pumping 8 to 12 times a day, for about 15 to 20 minutes every time, switching breasts when the first one feels empty, and stimulating both breasts equally. On the other hand, some advice says to forget schedules altogether at the very beginning, pump any time you have a spare minute, and nurse by offering your breast as comfort any time your baby is upset or fussy.

Frequency for nursing and pumping is a crucial ingredient for relactation, but it isn’t the only one. Other strategies that can help with breastfeeding under these circumstances include:

  • Skin to skin time: Spending time close together and in a relaxed environment can help your baby reach the point where latching on “clicks.” But more than that, skin to skin contact with your baby is shown to release the hormones in your body that increase bonding and regulate lactation, to the point where it’s a widely accepted part of the treatment of babies who are born prematurely.
  • General health: Just like every other part of your life, lactation is more likely to run smoothly if you’re physically healthy, drinking enough water, and eating healthy, balanced meals.
  • Supplemental nursing device: Supplemental nursing devices, which feed formula to babies nursing at the breast, can be great for relactation. They offer the breast stimulation needed to get lactation going, and help the baby associate nursing with feeding, all while ensuring that your baby has enough to eat while your breast milk continues to develop.
  • Medications or herbal supplements: There is very little research that has been done on relactation. In some cases, a doctor might prescribe a medication, like Domperidone, though it’s unclear whether this works to increase breast milk production. There is also some, mostly anecdotal, evidence that herbal supplements like fenugreek can be helpful. In either case, nipple stimulation, either with a breast pump or while nursing, is still the most important part of the process.
  • Outside assistance: Advice from a lactation consultant or healthcare provider who is familiar with relactation, or from a lactation consultant, can be very valuable during this process.
  • Nipple shields: Though not all or even most families find them helpful, for some parents trying to transition bottle-fed infants towards breastfeeding, nipple shields can be great transitional aids as babies adjust to the new movements, textures, and flavors associated with breastfeeding.
  • Flexibility: It’s hard to know what’s going to work for your baby in relactation until you start trying, so being willing to change positions, schedules, and strategies is a must – relactation is a tricky process, but for many families, it’s also a worthwhile one. 

As you start to transition your baby to breastfeeding, you may notice the contents of your baby’s dirty diapers changing. Formula-fed babies tend to have poop that is firm and brownish, but the poops of breastfed babies are generally softer, looser, and yellower. As your baby transitions to getting more and more of their nourishment from breast milk, you’ll be able to see the change in their bowel movements.

  • A.B. Forinash, A.M. Yancey, K.N. Barnes, T.D. Myles. “The use of galactogogues in the breastfeeding mother.” Annals of Pharmacotherapy. 46(10): 1392-404. Web. October 2012.
  • Teresa Pitman. “10 tips for going back to breastfeeding.” Today’s Parent. Rogers Media, July 28 2016. Web.
  • “I would like to resume lactation after an interruption. How do I relactate?” La Leche League International. La Leche League International, December 21, 2015. Web.
  • “Relactation.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics. November 21 2015. Web.
  • “Relactation and Induced Lactation.” La Leche League GB. La Leche League UK, 2016. Web.
Get the Ovia Parenting app
Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Google Play Store Get our app at the Google Play Store