controversy over adoptive breastfeeding

We have been having some interesting discussions about adoptive breastfeeding in our online support group. Many adoptive moms want to breastfeed their new baby for the health and bonding benefits, but some birth moms find it offensive.

One birth mother called adoptive breastfeeding “child abuse” because the protocol for inducing lactation often requires an off label use of the drug domperidone, which she thinks may pass through the breast milk. (Creating a Family has extensive resources on the protocol, the controversy over domperidone, and the American Academy of Pediatrics position on Adoptive Breastfeeding.) Other birth mothers feel that it diminishes their role as the biological mother, and in the words of one first mom: “it is a lie.”

In light of this discussion, I thought you might find interesting this excerpt from an interview between Dr. Marcy Axness, an adoption therapist and adult adoptee, and Nancy Verrier, author of The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child, and a mother by birth and adoption.

Before we get to the interview, don’t forget to enter the celebration raffle for the Creating a Family 1 Million Listener Celebration to win one of 4 Amazon Gift cards ($500, $250, $100, $100). 

Marcy Axness:      This brings up a subject that I find I have some feelings about, which is adoptive mothers breastfeeding. I think it’s fine for a mother to want that, as long as she’s alert to whether her baby wants it as well, and to follow his lead.

Nancy Verrier:      Yes. There are some babies who will look right in the eye of their adoptive mom, and they will have a lot of eye contact, and there are some babies who will not look at their adoptive mom. They’ll turn their face away every single time. So I think it probably would be the same thing with breastfeeding—some would and some would not.

MA:    It’s funny, I’m passionate about the benefits of breastfeeding, both for the bonding aspects as well as the biochemical ones, such as the immunological and amino acid components of breast-milk. But coming from my adoptee perspective, I feel like the bottle is more honest. Less invasive of that primary relationship that you mentioned, that the baby may feel she needs to protect. And there is still plenty of closeness and comfort and eye contact that can be done while bottle-feeding.

NV:    Well, that’s true. This also relates to the issue of accepting that this baby did have another mother, another primary bond that needs to be respected and honored. I’m working with some adoptive parents who are trying very hard not be so possessive and who can talk about the birth mother with their child, and can empathize with that loss. And they get so much more out of their kids, I mean their kids will open right up and talk and talk and talk. But then there are certain ages where they will not acknowledge that there’s anything different at all.

MA:    Like what ages?

NV:    Oh, like adolescence. If they’ve had therapy previous to that time, they sometimes can say something, but if parents all of a sudden realize that their kids are incorrigible or something and try to get them into therapy, the kids think this has nothing to do with adoption. 

MA:    A talk I gave recently was entitled “Affirming the Adoptee’s Reality,” and I spoke about how important it is to begin to lay this foundation early, of empathizing with this baby—”I know I’m not the mom you expected”—because otherwise it can become hard to get through the defenses they can build up. For myself, even by age seven or eight, when my mother sat me down to give me the “You’re Adopted” talk, and she started talking about how much she and my father loved me very much and so on, I just felt like, “yuck.” That door inside me had slammed shut.

NV:    Yes, you have to acknowledge that from the beginning. And I can tell adoptive parents that we—and I can say “we,” which helps a lot—we don’t have the right energy for these kids. They do not feel comfortable with us. They do not feel mirrored by us. We cannot mirror them, we cannot. Because we don’t look like them, we don’t act like them, there’s nothing about us that makes them feel as if they’re being reflected. And we have to know that, and have to realize that this baby is missing something essential that’s part of one’s self-esteem. Because how does a baby gain self-esteem? Part of it is through how the mother treats the baby, but part of it is in that mirroring, the good self reflected back: “I’m okay.” It’s like the Ugly Duckling—why did the Ugly Duckling think he was ugly? Because he wasn’t like anyone else in the family. He was a swan living in a family of ducks.

Thoughts? What are the upside and downside of adoptive breastfeeding? Is it perpetuating a lie or is it beneficial to both the baby and the adoptive mom?

Other excerpts from an interview between Dr. Marcy Axness and Nancy Verrier:

Creating a Family resources on adoptive breastfeeding you might enjoy: