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When Greenville resident Jessica Donnahoo dreamed of becoming a mother, breastfeeding was an important part of what she wanted for herself and her children. Donnahoo is a nurse who spent 17 years working in labor and delivery, including work as a lactation consultant.

But her story took a much different path than she ever imagined.

In January 2015, after years of infertility treatment and surgery, Donnahoo and her husband were told that she could not get pregnant. They decided to grow their family through adoption.

“I had made peace with the fact that I wouldn’t give birth, but I really wanted to breastfeed,” she said.

In addition to taking the legal steps necessary for adoption, Donnahoo also took the physical steps toward being able to breastfeed.

“We just believed that a baby was going to come, and I needed to be ready when that happened,” she said.

Mandy Schaub, a lactation consultant with Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, said breastfeeding after an adoption is hard work. Donnahoo began medication, first to mimic the hormonal effects of pregnancy and then to induce lactation, well before adoption.

“It is a real possibility for moms, even moms who have never had a baby,” Schaub said. “We try not to focus on how much (milk) they end up getting, but just on the experience as a whole.”

Moms breastfeeding without giving birth can expect a wide variety of results and they may not produce enough milk to be the baby’s sole sustenance. The sooner the mom starts the protocol for inducing lactation, the greater the milk volume she is likely to produce, Schaub said. A hospital-grade rental pump is also an important factor in success.

In Donnahoo’s case, she met her son shortly after his birth when a planned adoption did not proceed. Though she immediately began breastfeeding and pumping, Donnahoo said her chances of being able to induce lactation were lessened because the adoption happened so suddenly.

“We did supplement with donor breast milk until my milk came in and I breastfed him until he was 9 months old,” she said. “I breastfed just like any other mother would do.”

Because her son had several birth defects, including one that caused him to aspirate milk, Donnahoo said the choice turned out to be important for him.

“Aspirating breast milk did not hurt him,” she said.

Donnahoo only stopped breastfeeding when she was surprised with the news that she was pregnant. Because the pregnancy was considered high risk, her doctor advised against breastfeeding while pregnant. But Donnahoo continued to give her son donated breast milk until he was 14 months old. Once her daughter was born, she was able to breastfeed her and then return the favor to other adoptive families.

“In order to give back, I donated 13 gallons of breast milk,” she said. “I wanted so badly to say thank you. I was really grateful that other mothers stepped in where I could not.”

Schaub said moms can certainly bond with their children without breastfeeding, but that it is often possible to breastfeed without birth if that is important to the family.

“I know some moms don’t breastfeed and I would never, ever judge that, but this was our personal goal,” Donnahoo said. “For me, it was incredibly important, and I felt like I didn’t have to give that up.”

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