When Can You Start Breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding is often seen as a “now or never” decision – either you start right after giving birth in the hospital or you don’t start at all. However, there are numerous factors that can hinder breastfeeding, such as taking medication that can appear in breast milk, changes in work or home life that make regular breastfeeding difficult, or simply not having the energy to handle a challenging latch immediately after childbirth.

But here’s the good news: breastfeeding doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation. Even if you’ve stopped breastfeeding or never started, there’s a chance to relactate and breastfeed again if you have the desire, time, and energy to invest in the process.

Who Can Relactate?

There is no definitive cutoff point for relactation – it’s never too late to give it a try. However, the longer you wait, the more challenging it may be for both you and your baby. Factors such as stimulating milk production and getting a previously bottle-fed baby to latch onto the breast can pose difficulties. Ideally, it’s best to start the relactation process around three months after giving birth or shortly after stopping breastfeeding if you did breastfeed for a while. If your body initially produced a sufficient amount of milk, relactation will likely be easier, but it’s still possible even if you didn’t have an abundant milk supply. Babies older than six months and those who have never breastfed before may face a bit more difficulty, but it’s not impossible.

While relactation may result in producing enough milk for exclusive breastfeeding, more commonly, it becomes part of your baby’s feeding routine, and you may need to supplement with formula to ensure they receive enough daily calories. Although this can be disheartening, any amount of breastfeeding can provide long-term benefits as your baby continues to grow.

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Women who prioritize the experience of breastfeeding and appreciate its health benefits generally have a more satisfying relactation journey.

How Does Relactation Work?

You can use a manual or electric pump to stimulate your breasts, but in most cases, a combination of pumping and nursing is effective in re-establishing lactation. Similar to starting from scratch, frequent nursing or pumping sessions, matching your baby’s feeding schedule, send accurate signals to your body on milk production. In the initial stages, this means nursing or pumping 8 to 12 times a day for about 15 to 20 minutes per session, switching breasts when the first feels empty, and stimulating both equally. Alternatively, some experts suggest forgetting schedules altogether initially and pumping whenever you have a spare moment, while offering your breast for comfort whenever your baby is upset or fussy.

Although frequency is vital for relactation, it’s not the sole factor in the process. Other strategies that can support breastfeeding under these circumstances include:

  • Skin-to-skin time: Spending relaxed time close to your baby can facilitate successful latch-on and, more importantly, release hormones that enhance bonding and regulate lactation. In fact, skin-to-skin contact is a widely accepted approach in the care of prematurely born babies.
  • General health: Your overall physical well-being, including proper hydration and balanced meals, plays a role in smooth lactation, just like any other aspect of life.
  • Supplemental nursing device: These devices, which deliver formula to babies while they nurse at the breast, can be invaluable during relactation. They provide the necessary breast stimulation to restart lactation while helping your baby associate nursing with feeding, all while ensuring they receive adequate nourishment as your breast milk supply continues to develop.
  • Medications or herbal supplements: Limited research exists on relactation, but in some cases, doctors may prescribe medications like Domperidone, although its effectiveness in increasing breast milk production remains uncertain. Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that herbal supplements like fenugreek might be beneficial. However, regardless of any supplements, the most crucial part of the process is still nipple stimulation, either by using a breast pump or through nursing.
  • Seek outside assistance: Consulting with a lactation consultant or healthcare provider experienced in relactation can provide invaluable support throughout the process.
  • Nipple shields: While not universally effective, nipple shields can assist parents transitioning bottle-fed infants to breastfeeding by helping babies adjust to the new sensations, textures, and flavors associated with nursing.
  • Flexibility: Relactation can be a complex process, and what works for one baby may not work for another. It’s important to be open to changing positions, schedules, and strategies as you navigate this journey. Despite its challenges, relactation can be a rewarding endeavor for many families.
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As you transition your baby to breastfeeding, you may notice changes in their bowel movements. Formula-fed babies typically have firm, brownish stools, while breastfed babies produce softer, looser, and yellower stools. This change in bowel movements indicates that your baby is gradually receiving a greater proportion of their nourishment from breast milk.

Sources: La Leche League GB

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