Mothers who have turned to formula in the first weeks of their baby’s life, either by choice or after a less-than-stellar start to breastfeeding, sometimes wonder if it is still possible to breastfeed. Yes! Many mothers are still able to breastfeed after supplementing partly or even fully with formula, and with some effort, can often even breastfeed exclusively.
The breasts and the demand/supply system in the brain that generate breast milk are extremely responsive in the first weeks and even months of a baby’s life. It is absolutely possible to restart that response cycle and increase breast milk production even after giving formula. This is true especially if a mother has attempted breastfeeding in the first days of a baby’s life, has breastfed a previous baby, or if a mother was breastfeeding but was told she was not producing enough milk to support adequate weight gain.
There are many great reasons to give breastfeeding another try even after it was thought to be “too late.” Mothers may find that babies who had latch difficulties in the early days may, when a few days or weeks older, stronger and larger, no longer have trouble. Mothers who experienced pain or breast injury due to poor latch in the early days may be healed and able to give breastfeeding another try. Mothers with sleepy newborns or reluctant eaters may be able to get a baby to feed more easily now that a more regular feeding pattern has been established. Mothers who underwent cesarean or difficult births may be more recovered. Premature babies many have overcome early challenges or restrictions from breast milk or oral feeding. Breastfeeding may, in fact, be surprisingly easy!
If mothers feeding formula are still interested in breastfeeding in the first few months, give it another try. If babies are willing to latch, offer the breast as often as possible, including before every formula feedings, but also between feedings and even if it doesn’t seem at first that the baby is getting much milk. Be sure to offer both sides throughout the day. See if the breasts begin to respond at least a little bit within the first week. If possible, add a pumping protocol, and/or other strategies as described in my article, “Increasing Low Milk Supply” (linked below). Any milk pumped can be fed in place of some formula. Ideally over time, the volume of feeding at the breast, as it increases, combined with any expressed (pumped) breast milk can begin to replace the formula, potentially completely.
If the baby doesn’t latch easily, consider giving the baby some skin to skin time around the breast and free access to latch if the instinct strikes. Try this at times when the baby is not even hungry. While it may seem they would be more likely to latch at feeding time, they may not be willing to try something different when they are hungry. Offer the breast after the initial hunger need has been met, partway through a feeding or between feedings. Ask for help from an experienced nursing mother or a breastfeeding professional to see if the baby will respond to some gentle guidance or if positioning tips might be helpful.
Remember, breastfeeding after formula is more possible than many mothers may think, even if breastfeeding has completely stopped. My best friend restarted exclusive breastfeeding after a slow start and exclusive formula for a week, and then nursed for more than two years!
Once the early, hectic days of new motherhood pass, and don’t assume that the chance at breastfeeding, if it didn’t happen right off the bat, have passed as well. With some effort and persistence, and potentially some assistance, it can be possible to return from formula feeding to breastfeeding.
Some products that help to increase milk production (full length reviews of both products in related links below):