What is Relactation?

Nutrition, Behavior & More

With the formula shortage continuing throughout the United States, some mothers may be thinking about trying something that is not too common these days: relactation.  Relactation is the process of resuming breastfeeding after having a break – whether it was days, weeks, or months.  Let’s explore this interesting topic of relactation with some basic questions and answers.

Is it really possible?

Yes! However, it is not without lots of dedication and time. It is especially difficult if it has been over two months since you were breastfeeding or pumping milk.

How does it all work?

For most moms, it is easier to encourage a milk supply to return if it has been a shorter period of time since the mom was last lactating. It is also less challenging if there was previously an abundant milk supply.  The main way to get a milk supply to come back is frequent breast stimulation to reengage milk production; this means  frequent (about every 2-3 hours) nursing or pumping. 

Some moms find it easier to pump to bring in the supply. A baby who has become accustomed to bottles for some time may not have the patience to nurse when the breast has very little supply. This is common in the beginning of the relactation process.  As you begin to pump more and more as time goes on, moms are sometimes able to transfer baby to latching on the breast.  We all know lactation is directly related to hormones. Thus, keeping baby close and doing skin to skin can help with this aspect also, bringing in more of a plentiful supply.

How do I pump effectively?

We want to pump often to bring in a full supply. Ideally, this mean emptying the breasts at least 8 times per 24 hours. For most mothers, each pump session being roughly 15 minutes is necessary. I always recommend pumping both breasts simultaneously with a double electric breast pump.  It may also help to rent a hospital grade double electric pump, such as the Medela Symphony. These pumps are stronger and can play a role in bringing in that supply quicker. Some moms feel high quality pumps, such as the Spectra S1 or S2, do just as good of a job as the hospital grade pumps. 

How long will it take?

Some moms are able to get their supply back quickly. This can be related to a shorter break/less time since they last lactated and the age of their baby. Additional factors, such as hormones and stress, can also impact the relactation time. Other moms may see that it takes their body weeks to see even an ounce per pump session. Just like when moms first have a baby, milk supply can come in at very different rates and amounts. 

What about medications or herbs to help?

The main point in lactation is supply and demand, as I’m sure you all know. However, with relactation, sometimes it is necessary to have some medicinal assistance to bring in a new supply, especially if your child is over 2 months old. Medications or herbs that are anecdotally helpful in lactation are known as galactogogues.  The one most commonly used for relactation is Reglan, and it is given only via prescription from a MD. There are risks and side effects with many of the herbs. Always check with your doctor before taking any herbs or medications.

How do I help my baby go from bottle to breast?

If your goal is to bring baby back to breast as your milk begins to return, the best way to teach a baby is to practice paced bottle feeding  (if you are not already). This will help your baby to take the bottle more slowly. That way, he or she is more likely to accept the breast. Most moms’ milk via the breast comes out slower than formula from a bottle fed in a more quick/gravitational way. 

As your supply begins to increase, some moms are able to begin offering the breast.  Remember, it may be confusing to your little one at first, especially if it has been a while since you last breastfed him or her. If your little one is fussy, not latching, and not having success nursing within a couple minutes, it’s best to try again another time. As your baby begins to nurse more often, you can slowly decrease the amount of formula in the bottle.  It is recommended that your little one has frequent weight checks during this time to make sure that your baby is still gaining weight appropriately. 

What if I need more support?

Relactation is certainly not an easy process for many moms, and it does take time and dedication. But with the right support and encouragement, it is achievable and can have wonderful results for you and your baby. It is very helpful to connect with a lactation consultant when approaching relactation. If you are looking for one, reach out to Kimberly Kelk on our staff. Kimberly is available for private phone or Zoom visits and would love to help you reach your lactation goals!  

About the author: Kimberly Kelk is a Registered Nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). Kimberly graduated with her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing and has worked as an RN in Labor & Delivery, Postpartum, and Special Care Nursery units in the hospital setting.   Kimberly currently supports nursing moms and babies meet their breastfeeding goals in an inpatient and outpatient hospital setting, as well as supporting Sleep Wise families virtually .


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