What is Adoptive Breastfeeding and Why So Many Adoptees are Against It

Visit any mixed adoption group (mixed meaning it includes adoptive parents, first parents, and adoptees), and one topic guarantees a war zone of a thread: adoptive breastfeeding.

WHAT IS ADOPTIVE BREASTFEEDING?

There is a trend among adoptive moms–especially in mommy groups–to apply the “breast is best” principle to adopted kids…even if the woman has never lactated before. This alone leads to a lot of questionable advice since one of the leading ways to induce lactation in a never-been-pregnant woman is medications which can pass through the breast milk to the child. Which, logically, defeats the purpose behind breastfeeding as being the most natural feeding option. (We aren’t even going to get into how the breast vs. formula debate can lead to shaming woman who can’t breastfeed nor how it attempts to claim a lack of intelligence and development in formula-fed people.)

WHY IS THIS SO CONTROVERSIAL IN THE COMMUNITY?

If you’ve experienced the heightened emotions surrounding the breast vs. bottle debate elsewhere, multiply it tenfold for the adoption community. There are a lot of adoptees and first moms who are for it and there are a lot who are against it. Either way, the fact that we can’t come to any modicum of consensus SHOULD give any prospective adoptive parent pause. Many of us in mixed groups hold that adoptive parents should at the very least give reasonable consideration to the experiences of adult adoptees and first parents because 1) the first parents may be voicing concerns their child’s first parent may also have but feel too afraid to voice and 2) adult adoptees represent the way your adopted kid might feel in 10, 20, or 30 years.

I know, I know. You can find plenty of people who agree with you one way or the other, and that makes the opinions you don’t agree with moot, right? Well, you don’t have a guarantee on how your adoptee will feel someday. Even THEY don’t have a guarantee on how they will feel. Just ask any adoptee who has gone through what some call “the fog” and the massive personality change they had in that transition. (First moms often go through their own “fog” experience.) So, some of us feel the best practice is to consider the views of a variety of adoptees and first families before making decisions, because you don’t know the way your 5-year-old will feel about your choices when they are 35. But you have a plethora of 35-year-olds who can give you a clue.

SO WHY ARE ADOPTEES AGAINST IT?

Before we get started, we need to set a baseline understanding on a common rebuttal:  THE PROBLEM OF ADOPTIVE BREASTFEEDING HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE GENERAL HISTORY OF BREASTFEEDING. I say this first because all conversations eventually end up back at this first point over and over, and we almost never move past it.

Most (if not all) people who are against adoptive breastfeeding recognize that 1) breastfeeding is natural and 2) breastfeeding kids who aren’t yours (nursemaids) have existed throughout history. No one is disputing that it is normal and historical to offer a lactating breast to a hungry child, biological mother or not. This biological and social history of the breast and babe are not on trial here. This conversation has to do with adoption.

  • Another rebuttal is that “people have always adopted (and we presume fed them with their breast), so it’s ok; it’s historical!”. But MODERN ADOPTION DOES NOT HAVE A LONG HISTORY. Yes, children who do not have parents for various reasons have been taken in by their local communities since the dawn of man. Prior to modern adoption, communities raised children. They were not separated from their birth families, even in the event of death. More often than not, they were still raised by extended family. From Hinduism to Islam to European bloodlines and more, historically, preserving the child’s tie to their birth family has never been in question. The child is born to their mother and father. Period.However, we have created a situation through our strange concepts of individualism that make such communal connections foreign, that the preference is adoption by strangers.In the last 100 years or so, we have completely changed the way we view the status of children. We now define “orphan” ambiguously: it is NOT a child with no mother or father or extended family willing to take them in, as we generally learned in grade school. “Orphans” for the purpose of adoption can have a living father and/or mother and/or grandparents/aunts/uncles. We now have legalities and contracts that remove a child from one family and make them part of a new one as if they never existed within the first family. These legalities enable states to bar first families from contact, keep adoptees from their own vital information, and enable the complete erasure of an adoptee’s past. (We aren’t even getting into the problems of intercountry adoption, trafficking, and ethics.)

 

  • WE HAVE TO PROBLEMATIZE THE OBJECTIFICATION OF BIRTH MOTHERS. Current adoption rhetoric tends to claim that some woman “gave up” her baby, was abusive toward her baby, or was a martyr passing along the gift of motherhood.  Such characterizations makes her into either the saint (for choosing adoption) or the sinner (for being forced to relinquish), both gives her second-class citizen status, and this lesser designation gives the adoptive parent a free pass to do whatever they please.Yes, there are some women out there who gave up their babies for selfish reasons and are quite horrible to their adult children in reunion. We have no dearth of those stories. But spending some time in with birth mothers and in mixed groups, one sees that the vast majority of birth mothers felt pressure to relinquish by family, by society, by agencies, and by the prospective adoptive parents. And…again…we have to remember that a large number of adoptees in the US are intercountry, and intercountry adoption is replete with coercion.Imagine if you were a mother whose baby was taken from you–whether by the state or by your mother or some other way–and learning that the bonding experience that was meant for you is being experienced by someone else. Yes there are some birth mothers who do agree and encourage adoptive breastfeeding. But we can’t take a few examples and build a monolith.

 

  • WE HAVE TO RECOGNIZE OUR CULTURE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BREASTFEEDING AND THEN CONSIDER HOW THIS SOCIAL EDUCATION AFFECTS THE ADOPTIVE EXPERIENCE.Before you read further, take a minute and consider what I’m trying to say, rather than reacting the language being used. This is the part that raises the most hackles in the larger conversation, but it is a necessary part of the conversation. We socially construct unnatural behaviors all the time and then punish people for what they were raised to believe or punish them for pushing against what they were raised to believe. Either way, walk into this next bit understanding that I’m discussing social construction of the breast and awareness of strangers.Our culture sexualizes breasts, implicitly and explicitly. We (Westerners) ALL IMPLICITLY view breasts as secret, personal, and sexual, by nature of the vast majority of messages we get on policing women’s bodies. Regardless of one’s stance, we are conditioned to feel uncomfortable with breasts. We are taught as young children not to come in contact with other people’s private parts. Any contact with the private parts of an adult is dirty and inappropriate, even molestation.

So how can we expect adoptees to be ok with sucking a non-related woman’s nipple at the same time we teach children to avoid non-related nipples? We’ve constructed socially the exact reason why a natural act is unnatural to the adoptee. It doesn’t matter how much one believes in freeing the nipple. Society is going to pound into the child’s head that it’s sexual. And we can’t ignore the repercussions of that.

AN ADOPTEE IS NOT A TABULA RASA, NO MATTER WHAT AGE THEY WERE ADOPTED. Much work has been done on pre-verbal trauma and its connection to infant adoptions. Babies spend nine months with their mothers. They learn the sound of her heartbeat, her voice, the voices of those around her, and the sounds of their neighborhood. They learn the cuisine she prepares. They learned the language she speaks. The prepare for the world they are about to enter. They experience the trauma of birth with their mothers. They (are supposed to) calm down from the trauma of new life with their mothers. They recognize their removal from their mothers. We have so much research on this, it’s sad how disregarded it is.We are happy to talk about the connection between fetus and mother when people keep their babies (just look here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and…you get the picture), but we reject the existence of a fetal-maternal connection in adoption.The baby knows your breast isn’t their mother’s.They were preparing for their mother.

And they are seeking their mother.

It is confusing for a non-verbal being to have a different voice, different heartbeat, and yes, a different breast and milk, than what they were preparing for. Yes, there is evidence of bonding between any baby and any woman who breastfeeds, but our bodies and minds were not made to transfer attachment fully in this artificial way.

BUT WHO ARE YOU AND WHY DO YOU THINK YOU CAN SPEAK FOR ALL ADOPTEES?

You are right. I can’t speak for all adoptees. As I said earlier, you will find PLENTY of adoptees who are for breastfeeding. But you will also find PLENTY of adoptees who are adamantly against it. I’m simply writing this post to lay out some of the common arguments put forward in adoption groups against adoptive breastfeeding, because, sadly, there aren’t enough resources available online that explain these views fully.