I’ve updated it a bit as our children have gotten older and more vocal about experiences which they feel may help others.
This is our adoptive breastfeeding story, and why it was such a positive experience.
Having been breastfed by my mother until I was six, I was aware of the importance of breastfeeding, for the breastfed child, during a time of stress or trauma. Breastfed children do not normally use an inanimate item (such as a blanket or stuffed animal) to comfort themselves. They often use the closeness that breastfeeding provides from their mother.
So, not only was my child taken away from his homeland, culture, language, and family (most importantly, his mother) – he was also stripped of the main action that provided him comfort.
Being able to breastfeed Samuel for almost a year was a beautiful experience.
I wish I could say it was my idea. Truthfully, I thought he was too old to latch on to a new person for the first time.
I was wrong.
Samuel had been curiously watching me breastfeed his brother (Aram, 2.5 years at the time). He didn’t speak English, but in his curiosity he was able to convey that he was also interested.
I spoke to Samuel’s doctor, an M.D. specializing in adoption, and he was extremely supportive of the idea to offer him a spot nursing alongside his brother. His doctor was more concerned about my comfort level, and alleviating any discomfort (due to cultural norms) that I had, than whether or not it should be offered. The answer to my original question was simple, yes, if I was comfortable, it most definitely should be an available option for support.
At first Samuel seemed too timid to ask outright. You could tell his fear of rejection when he showed the initial interest. When I asked him if he would also like to breastfeed he smiled and jumped right on my lap. During our first experience breastfeeding, I could tell it was something he missed dearly; something from home I was able to give him.
I am so happy I was able was able to provide him with the comfort he needed to get through trauma, trauma most people will never experience in their entire life.
In our situation, Aram and Samuel got along great right away. But no matter how much we tried to prepare ourselves for a new family member, the attachment process is not something logical. It seems to happen at the most basic and biological level.
We had this new person in our home who felt… new. And at almost four-years-old, he was also a stranger who we needed to get to know. Aram thought this new child was fantastic, but I don’t think he really grasped the idea that he was his brother, or that I was the mother to both of them, until he realized that one of the most primal areas to seek comfort and security was also being offered to his playmate.
Other interesting observations about adoptive breastfeeding:
- Every person from Ethiopia I’ve encountered finds adoptive breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding normal. (Wet/cross-nursing is still common in certain areas of the country.) One woman said- “If there is milk we use it!” She went on to explain that breastfeeding eight-year-old children is not an uncommon practice (and biologically it is a normal length of time for primates).
- Due to lack of exposure and understanding of this topic, most Americans are horrified by it.
- It helped my attachment and bonding to him.
- It helped his attachment and bonding to me.
- It helped Aram understand Samuel’s role in the family, and that he was completely equal.
- I definitely think that there is great reason (sometimes even more so than with a biological child) to practice “extended” breastfeeding with an adopted child.
I don’t think it is the end-all-be-all for attaching with your adopted child. If this is not an option for you, it is nothing to be overly concerned with. I do, however, want to bring this to the attention of other adoptive parents that may find this helpful for their own family. Think of it as one of many tools that could potentially be used when parenting children who have experienced adoption-related trauma.