Why I Let My Adopted Preschoolers Nurse

May 6, 2013

Nursing

A few days after we arrived home from Ethiopia as a family of four, I was sitting on the couch with one of my daughters when she stuck her hand down my shirt. I thought she was being playful at first, but it soon became clear she was reaching for my breast, wanting to nurse. I didn’t know what to do. My initial reaction was to gently pull her hand away and redirect her; after all, there was no milk there, and my four-year-old daughter is obviously not a baby. But I stopped myself, and here’s why…

Before my husband and I landed in Ethiopia, I made a list of questions I hoped to ask the girls’ birth family (if we had the privilege of meeting any). One thing I wanted to know was whether the girls were breastfed. Amazingly, on our second trip, we found ourselves sitting across from a birth relative in the home our girls had lived in before being brought to the orphanage. We learned they were mostly not breastfed: Their birth mother couldn’t produce enough milk, so they were primarily fed on hospital-grade formula.

When my daughter was reaching for my breast that first time, it occurred to me that she may have missed this early bonding experience with her birth mom. Whether that’s true or not, both my daughters would have seen babies on the breast all around them in Ethiopia. In their birth culture, breasts are for children, and they represent the nurturing connection between mother and child. Babies are carried on their mothers’ backs until they’re older toddlers, and children are openly breastfed — often up through five and six years old, and even older in rural areas. (And, in fact, there’s even communal breastfeeding in rural communities, where female relatives nurse other children.) Nursing at your mother’s breast is a big part of what it means to be her child.

Although I knew we’d be getting siblings, I didn’t know how old our children would be until we received a referral. I was aware that some adoptive mothers had successfully induced lactation to feed their adopted children, but since I’m not one to ingest unnecessary chemicals or meds, I didn’t want to do that. (If I’d already been nursing a biological child, I certainly would have breastfed an adopted child.) I had planned to seek out some breast milk for nutritional reasons, if we found ourselves with a baby or two, but since we ended up with four-year-old twins, the issue seemed moot.

Yet there I was, with preschoolers who wanted to nurse — both of them at first, but mainly the daughter who regressed the most. She needed to be treated like a baby. And so, on that first day, I took a deep breath and let her nurse. Then I prayed that none of my neighbors would choose that moment to walk past our living-room windows.

Since then, I’ve bared my breast on many occasions, though it usually only lasts a minute or two and has become less frequent now. One of my daughters still wants to nurse at times, though, especially when she’s upset.

Recently, during my mother-in-law’s week-long visit, my daughter had a small regression episode. She eventually climbed into my lap and indicated that she wanted to nurse. My mother-in-law was finishing her lunch across the table and I momentarily panicked. What would she think? After I explained to her what was happening, she said, “You’re the mom — do what you think is best.” (She’s great like that.) So out came the boob, and less than twenty seconds later, my daughter had snapped out of her funk and was on her merry way. This happens every time, and it tells me that all she needs is that experience of connection to make everything right in her world.

In adoption, a child’s primary attachment is severed, and a new process of attachment must begin with new parents. (Often they’ve attached to other caregivers in between, too.) Whether a child is a toddler or preschooler when she comes home, you have to approach her in many of the same ways you would an infant. Attachment is an emotional and psychological bond, but it happens through the body: physical closeness, eye contact, holding, carrying, cuddling, co-sleeping, tone of voice, feeding, meeting needs on demand, and many other gestures of intimacy and care-taking. It can be exhausting — and weird to do some of this with older children — but I’ve now seen the fruits.

I have to admit, I would find this terribly awkward to do in public — and I probably wouldn’t, given that I’m not actually breastfeeding, and my daughters are now almost five. But I’ve tried to put my daughters’ needs and our attachment first, and to let go of any cultural biases or discomforts I have. I know that the more my daughters feel secure and attached, the less they’ll want to connect this way — but for now, I let their needs lead my actions.

I hesitated to write about this at first. I haven’t discussed it with many friends or family members, and here I am telling the world. (Blogging is weird like that.) But I share this story in the hope that it might help another adoptive mom who faces the same situation, and to add another voice to the breastfeeding community’s efforts to normalize the various ways mothers nurture and bond with their children. I think it would have been fine to redirect my daughter elsewhere (and, in fact, I gave them both bottles for a while when they came home, which is highly recommended), but I went with my gut on this, which is all a mom can do. I wouldn’t expect another mom to make the same choice, but I’d want her to know it’s okay if she does.

So: What do you think of this? If you’re an adoptive mom, did the issue come up? How did you handle it? If you have children by birth, did you struggle with whether to breastfeed, and for how long?

UPDATE 11/22/13:  It’s now been six months since I wrote this post about comfort-nursing my daughters, and it continues to be the most widely-read entry on my blog, which surprises me — in part because breastfeeding has been such a tiny part of my life with my daughters. Their request/desire for nursing was sporadic and short-lived: Shortly after I wrote this post, it was rarely happening, and now, just over a year after they’ve been home (and are extremely well bonded), they don’t ask for it anymore. I know with certainty that in our case, this was all about the attachment process and I’m very glad I set my own discomforts aside and followed their lead. I also know this is still a very hard thing for others to imagine or understand — and that’s okay. I’m grateful, however, to have incredibly supportive family and friends, and the overwhelming majority of comments here have been supportive and kind. Thanks for reading, and please come visit us at SlowMama anytime!

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Image: B

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