Everything You Need to Know About Relactation and Pumping
Breastfeeding is a personal matter for all mothers. There are a huge number of reasons why moms might choose to—or not to—breastfeed. It can be emotional territory.
In particular, there are a lot of feelings about ending breastfeeding. Some moms are entirely ready to close that chapter of their lives. Others have bittersweet feelings, glad for the autonomy of their own bodies again but missing the sweet connection with their little ones.
But what about when moms want to resume breastfeeding? Whether you’ve stopped lactating for medical, personal, or work-related reasons, it’s entirely possible to rebuild your milk supply.
Bringing Back Breastfeeding
When a mother wants to start breastfeeding again, she may have the option of relactating. Relactation is rebuilding your milk supply after weaning your baby from nursing or yourself from pumping.
Note that relactation is different than inducing lactation, which is building a milk supply from scratch. (I.e., you haven’t started lactating at all yet.)
Moms have lots of reasons for wanting to explore relactation.
- Wanting to resume breastfeeding after needing to wean early. This could be due to medical reasons, personal or professional circumstances, national formula shortage, or other reasons.
- Difficulty establishing breastfeeding after birth. This could be due to prematurity, lack of breastfeeding support, or other reasons.
- Your child is experiencing health issues and you want to offer them additional immune system benefits
- Wanting to provide donor breast milk for a friend, family member, or a milk bank or hospital
No matter the reason for relactating, it’s a personal choice. Only a mother can decide if it’s the right option for her and her family.
The Science of Relactation
When it comes down to it, breast milk production is a simple matter of supply and demand. In the breastfeeding world, that’s nipple stimulation and milk extraction. If you can create the demand for breast milk through nipple stimulation and milk removal, your body and hormones (specifically, prolactin and oxytocin) will respond accordingly.
But once you get milk production underway, you have to keep at it. You’ll need to have ongoing stimulation and extraction for the milk to keep flowing.
Note: If you’re undertaking relactation, make sure your little one is still receiving adequate calories through an age-appropriate diet and has normal weight gain.
If you’re considering relactating, though, you should discuss your plans with your doctor. They can help you assess any potential barriers to success, such as medications. For example, hormonal birth control can impact milk production and you may want to change to a non-hormonal method.
How Long Does It Take to Relactate?
Relactation is possible! But it’s also time-consuming. If your milk supply is completely dried up, you should plan on at least two weeks of consistent stimulation before you see results and it will take up to 30 days before you’ll know what your milk supply will be like.
Because relactation is a significant undertaking, discuss your plans with your support system to make sure you have the help you need during this time.
Keys to Successful Relactation
Remove Breast Milk Fully and Frequently
Because breast milk is supply and demand, you have to remove milk before your body decides to make more of it. The more milk you remove, the more you make. If there is milk left in your breasts after nursing or pumping, your body interprets that as excess. (I.e., you didn’t need to make that milk!)
To relactate, you’ll want to pump or nurse to start creating supply. (Or a combination of the two.)
Pumping for Relactation
A double electric pump is your best option for maximizing your time. Not only does it stimulate both breasts to produce milk, but pumping both breasts at once supports higher prolactin levels, more letdowns, and fattier milk content.
That being said, everyone responds differently to pumping. That’s why consistency is key. Your relactation plan should allow for at least 8-10 pumping sessions a day. Make sure one or more sessions is a middle-of-the-night pumping session, as milk production is highest during the early hours of the morning.
It may take some time for your breasts to get used to pumping. Treat your body gently and start with shorter sessions and a lower suction setting. As your breasts get used to the pump, you can increase the length and strength of your sessions.
Try Your Hand at Hand Expressing
While electric pumps are highly efficient, don’t overlook hand expression as a way to relactate. Hand expression, especially when combined with breast massage, can ensure that you’re fully emptying your breasts after pumping sessions. After all, the more you empty your breasts, the more milk you’ll produce.
Need help with breast massage? Our lactation massager is designed especially for it. (But without the tired hands!)
Nursing and Relactation
For many moms, relactation is their primary goal. However, some mothers want to have a nursing relationship with their child as well. This can be an especially strong desire if their breastfeeding relationship was cut short earlier than anticipated.
If your baby has struggled with their latch in the past, make sure you work closely with a lactation consultant to build the necessary skills for latching and milk transfer.
Supplemental Nursing System (SNS)
If you’re pumping to relactate but also want to nurse, try using a supplemental nursing system (SNS). An SNS delivers the milk you’ve already pumped to your baby at the same time they’re nursing via fine tubing that is taped to your nipple. It stimulates milk production and provides nutrition at the same time—everyone wins!
Get the Help You Need
Relactation can be stressful. Besides making sure you have the support you need from family and friends, a lactation consultant can be an invaluable resource for you. Not only can they help you understand your previous breastfeeding challenges, but they can also help you avoid the same problems and come up with a plan that works for you.
Pro-tip: Your lactation consultant won’t just evaluate you. If you’re planning on nursing, they’ll look at your baby, assessing for tongue or lip ties, latch, and other core elements of successful nursing.
Creating a demand for breast milk supply is where breast milk production starts, but sometimes drugs and supplements—also known as galactagogues—can be helpful. Discuss your options for both prescription drugs and nutritional supplements with your lactation consultant and your doctor. While they can be a helpful tool, you’ll need to weigh the potential risks and side effects.