"When a child loses a parent they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses their partner they are widowed. When parents lose their child there is no word to describe them...simply that they are still parents" - President Ronald Reagan
October 15th marks a sad day for many parents as it's Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Although the whole month is dedicated to pregnancy and infant loss awareness thanks to President Ronald Reagan. Statistically it is thought that ¼ pregnancies ends in miscarriage. While this may seem like an odd and sobering topic for a lactation blog, for many grieving parents, lactation is still a process they have to go through, even if their pregnancy ended without a living baby.
Loss after 16 weeks may still trigger Lactogenesis - the hormonal process of making milk. This can be shocking for a parent dealing with the unexpected loss of a pregnancy. They don't have their baby. Why should they have milk? We help these parents navigate the confusing and often emotionally painful process, letting them know their options and supporting them in whichever they choose.
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Some want their milk to go away as fast as possible. We discuss the pros and cons of this, always. While it's understandable, it's also the option that could potentially cause the most complications. Abruptly drying up milk supply is possible, but can be painful and lead to engorgement, blocked ducts, and mastitis. It can involve medication, as little stimulation as possible, and cold compresses to reduce blood flow to the breasts.
Instead, I encourage them towards a gentler approach if at all possible. Express the milk until comfortably full with hand expression or a hand pump, using cool compresses and over the counter pain relief for comfort. Their bodies have already been through an ordeal. This process might take more time, but is less likely to lead to medical complications.
The question then becomes "But what do I do with the milk?" It's heartbreaking to have milk that a baby isn't there to drink. There are several options for this as well. If there is an older baby sibling, it can be offered to them in their bottle or a cup, or mixed into food for them to eat. It's still nourishing a child, just not the child they expected and lost. The milk can be simply discarded or the milk can be donated.
Donating milk is not usually the option that initially occurs to a grieving parent. Some parents find comfort in working through their loss by sustaining and nourishing the babies of others. Their baby may have had a NICU stay. They may have seen other mothers and babies fighting and struggling. Some parents choose to not only donate the milk they express while waiting for their milk to dry up completely, but instead they induce full lactation with regular pumping so they can donate larger amounts to NICUs or milk banks. This option is not for everyone, but some parents find that it brings them joy to help other babies thrive.
Regardless of what choice is the least painful, we support them as they work through their loss. Grief looks different for every person. Sometimes they don't know which option hurts the least, and for them we simply hold space while they decide. Lactation after infant loss is something I wish was discussed more widely. It's horrible for it to completely catch a grieving family off guard. Please feel free to share this with anyone you know working through a loss.
If you experienced lactation after loss, was there anything that helped you? We would love to incorporate it into our practice as we support others.
Hey! I’m Allison, one of the Lactation Experts with Successful Breastfeeding! I am an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and have over seven years of experience as a pediatric nurse working one on one with mothers and babies. My most important credential is being “Mama” to two little ones. I am so happy to be part of the Successful Breastfeeding team; to be able to offer support in a more relaxed setting! I can help you meet your breastfeeding goals no matter where you are - virtual sessions for convenient, accessible help no matter where you live. Breastfeeding is a relationship between you and your baby, and it’s my job to support it, whatever your goals and needs happen to be.
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Kelly Maher, CLC, CLE
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