Shared breast-feeding: one couple's story of building the bond
One lesbian couple explains why having both mothers breast-feed was a positive way to start their parenting journey.
Jane*, 30 and Sarah*, 34, have just finished weaning their daughter Lily*, now 8 months old. As a lesbian couple who wanted to be equal parents from the start they both breast-fed Lily from birth.
When Sarah was pregnant they heard about the concept and popularity of induced lactation with lesbian couples in Sweden. With both mothers breast-feeding, they share the task of meeting the demands of a newborn and can both start bonding with the baby from early on. The couple decided to give it a try. Sarah planned two months off work after the birth, combining paternity leave with annual leave – making it logistically possible.
A woman who has not carried a child can create a milk supply as long as she has working mammary glands. Induced lactation is more common in the USA but is known about in the UK in the context of adoption (breast-feeding can help adopted babies and young children who have attachment issues), re-lactation (when a woman is forced to stop breast-feeding due to illness or other unforeseen interruptions), surrogacy (when a mother who has used a surrogate to carry her child wants to breast-feed) and wet nursing. However now lesbian communities are hearing about it, and some are attempting it.
Jane found The Newman-Goldfarb Protocol online – an American method used to induce lactation. It is possible to induce a milk supply simply using a breast pump but it’s not easy to achieve a decent supply without the assistance of drugs. Jane’s best chance of success was to go on the combination pill, providing the oestrogen and progesterone needed to build breast tissue. A month later she would come off the pill and go onto domperidone, an anti-emetic (anti-sickness) drug which has a side effect of increasing lactation, then start breast-pumping regularly with an electric breast pump. Timing this to just before Sarah was due to give birth, Jane planned to put their baby Lily onto her breast at three days old (allowing Sarah’s primary milk supply to come in first), stimulating milk flow and building her supply. Jane ran the Protocol past her GP who prescribed the pill and verified that it was safe to take domperidone whilst breast-feeding, and she started the process six weeks before their due date. “I was pumping for about 20 minutes, four or five times a day. It seemed like nothing was happening. It was quite dispiriting but then, after a week, a drop of milk appeared!” Slowly her supply increased, and after about a month Jane was producing about 25mls from each breast each time she pumped.
Lily was born in hospital and was put on Sarah’s breast at 20 minutes old. Then Sarah needed stitches, which took some time. While this happened Lily was crying so Jane put her to her breast and the baby fed without a problem. On their first night at home Sarah’s milk had not come in yet and despite her feeding and feeding Lily was screaming with hunger. Jane fed her and she went to sleep. “We were really happy that Lily got what she needed and that was that,” Jane recalls.
“This is a great success story,” says Emma Pickett, a lactation consultant in London and breast-feeding counsellor with The Association of Breast-feeding Mothers. “It’s hard work to get a full milk supply built up with induced lactation. It takes a lot of physical and emotional commitment.” Emma has many lesbian clients and has advised a few couples on induced lactation, but none have managed to follow it through. “One of the fears is that the birth mother’s milk supply is threatened in the first six weeks. But there’s no reason why you can’t protect her milk supply by expressing using a breast pump.”
Luckily, once it came in, Sarah’s milk supply was strong. Because breast milk production is based on demand the couple carefully maintained both their milk supplies by balancing the feeds. “I’d feed Lily first,” says Jane, “then if she was still hungry I’d pass her to the big guns!” As Lily got older Jane’s milk supply would not sustain a full feed but was enough to comfort her. This meant Sarah could get good stretches of sleep at night and breaks in the day, so neither parent suffered the extreme sleep deprivation common with having a newborn. “We feel that our start to parenthood was easier than it might have been,” says Sarah.
The couple found responses from other people were varied. Their midwives had never come across the concept of induced lactation before and avoided engaging with it. But midwives knowledge and expectations vary considerably and many others would have been open to it. “I would be doing a lot of signposting, says Judy*, a midwife in the southwest who has practised for 30 years, and has come across induced lactation before. “To me it seems like a really obvious thing to do – share the parenting. So many men say, ‘I wish I could breast-feed the baby. All this burden is on her, I want to take some of it away.’”
At first Jane found it tricky explaining to her boss that she needed to pop away from her desk to pump in the lead up to the birth. “Once he understood he was supportive,” she recalls, “some friends and family admitted they felt uncomfortable about us both breast-feeding at first but didn’t say so until they were over it.”
“We’ve had loads of supportive and positive reactions from other parents,” says Jane. “The main attitude has been ‘I wish my husband could breast-feed too, I’m so jealous!’”
The couple plan to have another child, and Jane will carry this time. “I’d really like Sarah to breast-feed too. I did half the nights – that one is going to come back! I’d much rather share that role and have the help.”
Jane and Sarah are now both equally bonded to Lily. “She doesn’t express a preference about who she goes to for comfort,” says Sarah. “This was one of several strategies that we put in place in order to try and make sure Lily has two primary parents and it worked well. It’s been great for me and lovely seeing Jane and Lily also bond from the start.”
All breast-feeding support services will be able to advise on induced lactation.
Emma Pickett: www.emmapickettbreastfeedingsupport.com
National Childbirth Trust NCT: www.nct.org.uk
Association of Breastfeeding Mothers: www.abm.me.uk
La Leche League: www.laleche.org.uk
This article was printed in issue 6 of We Are Family magazine, Summer 2014. Details may have changed - please do not rely on this information solely when making decisions - do your own research, make your own checks and get legal or health advice as appropriate.
* names have been changed to protect identities