For many mums, the early weeks of breastfeeding can bring challenge after challenge with many deciding to give up and move on to formula for the sake of their sanity. But once the dust has settled and there’s time to reflect, lots of women look back on weaning with heartfelt regret.
For Australian mum Renée MacLucas, the decision she made to leave breastfeeding behind when her baby was a few weeks old was something she couldn’t shake off. After some investigation, and with the solid support of her doctor and family, this brave mum decided to give relactation a shot … 12 months after her last breastfeed.
A tough start to breastfeeding
Breastfeeding got off to a rocky start for Renée, with little Ava being taken to special care immediately after birth and given formula, as Renée waited for her breastmilk to come in. Once mum and daughter were reunited, Renée was committed to exclusively breastfeeding Ava, but then a bout of mastitis derailed her plans again. Ava reacted to the antibiotics Renée was given to treat her infection, and had to be put back on formula for two days.
“We basically never fully recovered from that,” says Renée . “Ava was mixed fed from then on. Her last breastfeed was just after her six week vaccinations.”
Although Renée and her husband accepted they’d be a formula-feeding family from then on, the concerns about Ava missing out on the health benefits associated with breastmilk continued to linger. When Renée returned to work she decided to research the process of relactation to see if it was possible to give her baby her breastmilk, even if it was 12 months down the track.
What is relactation?
When a woman has been pregnant or has stopped breastfeeding, the process of stimulating the return of her milk supply is called relactation. When you’re pregnant, the hormone prolactin has a chief role in helping your body produce milk, and this is activated when nipples are stimulated, either from a suckling baby or by expressing. This also means it’s possible to produce milk if you’ve never been pregnant — for example, if you adopt a baby or are a lesbian mother who is not the birth mother. This sort of lactation is called induced lactation.
For Renée , the decision to start producing milk again was prompted by a lingering regret that she couldn’t provide her daughter with the optimal nutrition she needed.
“Breastfeeding wasn’t something that came naturally to me, but I knew it was important. I just wanted to do the best thing for her. I’d gone from caring for her at home to working four days a week. It [offering breastmilk] felt like something else I could do for her.”
A chance to try again
After consulting with her doctor, Renée decided to give relactation a shot.
“They did some bloods to make sure I was healthy, gave me some medication, I hired a pump and off I went. I began pumping for half an hour, around the clock, every three hours.”
To encourage the return of her supply, Renée was prescribed Motilium (a galactagogue which is a type of substance that is thought to increase breast milk supply) that has been shown to effectively increase prolactin levels. Committed to her cause, Renée did everything possible to bring her milk back.
“I was taking 12 brewer’s yeast tablets a day, fenugreek supplements, nursing tea, drinking four litres of water and eating porridge,” she says.
In the beginning her efforts produced very little return.
“I started on the 28th of July and by the 8th of August, I was getting 0.1 of a ml in 24 hours, so only tiny, tiny quantities, which made it kind of thankless.”
It might have been a tiny drop, but it was one Renée proudly delivered to her daughter on a spoon, her first taste of breastmilk in over a year.
Then came a milk explosion
It was when her precious daughter was admitted to hospital for a few days that Renée’s milk finally took off.
“We were there [at the hospital] for five days and it was probably the best thing for me, milk-wise. There were crying kids everywhere, so I kind of had an explosion of milk. When we left hospital, I was still pumping several times a day and getting 45-55 mls. This was after a month of pumping. By the 6th of September I was getting 100 mls a day.”
Renée was thrilled to have achieved her relactation goal, and she was finally able to give her daughter her breastmilk — although it continued to be hard work. Reducing off Motilium caused a sharp dip in her supply, as did any attempts to exercise. Renée says the support of her husband made the whole thing so much more doable — plus, as a chef, he made sure her diet was tip top.
“He made a breastfeeding salad that we would eat constantly,” Renée laughs.
In the end the battle with her milk levels became too stressful, and Renée decided to stop expressing in December, about five months after she started. Before she finished up, she stockpiled her milk in the freezer to use when Ava was unwell and needed the nutritional boost.
A positive message for mums
Renée’s story is incredibly important for mums who have weaned but would love the chance to try again. Renée’s experience is proof that starting over with breastfeeding is possible. While every woman is different and you shouldn’t expect to have the same results as Renée, relatation is definitely an avenue worth exploring for those wishing to start over.
“If I’d known I could have relactated, I would have tried earlier,” says Renée
Now she hopes her story will give other mums the chance to try breastfeeding one more go.