Photo by Santa Cruz Birth Photography; Heidi nurses Sequoia while Mary sits beside her.
Three-week-old Sequoia is one lucky baby: She is breastfed by not one, but two women, her mothers Heidi and Mary. The married couple from Santa Cruz, Calif. engage in a practice called “co-nursing,” in which they share breastfeeding duties.
“Our friends are fascinated by the fact that my wife and I both breastfeed our daughter,” Heidi, 26, a nanny and the baby’s birth mom, tells Yahoo Parenting. “We get a lot of, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ and ‘I didn’t know that was possible!’”
Induced lactation is indeed possible through dedicated nipple stimulation — either by putting baby to breast or with the aid of a breast pump — and is sometimes used by moms (and, very rarely, men) with adopted or surrogate children who want to breastfeed. Mary has opted for something called the Newman-Goldfarb protocol, a physician-developed approach that combines pumping with the taking of a drug called domperidone.
Heidi, who lactates on her own, gave birth to Sequoia at the couple’s home after a year-long struggle with endometriosis which included laparoscopic surgery to remove her ovarian cysts. She became pregnant through an intrauterine insemination (IUI), a process in which donor semen is implanted in the uterus with the help of a physician.
While there aren’t many statistics on the prevalence of co-nursing, according to New York City based lactation consultant Sara Chana, its health benefits as a result of using domperidome are unknown. “A new mom’s breast milk is designed for and evolves to suit the specific needs of her infant at every stage,” Chana tells Yahoo Parenting. “So it’s tough to say how drug-induced milk would benefit a baby who is already breastfeeding from her natural mother.” Although Chana doesn’t personally work with women who co-nurse, her clients include mother-daughter pairs who nurse each other’s babies, and sisters who “nurse the other’s baby if one is stuck in traffic, for example.”
Photo by Santa Cruz Birth Photography; Mary breastfeeds Sequoia.
Heidi and Mary decided to co-nurse so Mary could reap the health and bonding benefits of breastfeeding. Babies who nurse are better able to fight off bacteria and viruses, for example, while women who nurse are at less risk for breast and ovarian cancers. Plus, the eye contact and skin-to-skin contact during nursing sessions boosts the mother-baby connection. “I wanted to experience that closeness with my daughter, especially since I didn’t give birth,” Mary, 25, a graduate student, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It didn’t occur to us that we could also help each other out when we’re exhausted.”
When Heidi was five months pregnant, Mary heard about domperidone, a dopamine-receptor blocker that has a surprising side effect of boosting a woman’s breastmilk supply by triggering the release of the hormone prolactin. Although women have been taking the drug for decades — and Australian doctors recently urged the medical community to reconsider prescribing it for off-label use to aid lactation — it’s been called into question by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for causing cardiac problems and unknown risks for infants. Still, while the drug is not FDA approved, it’s commonly prescribed in Europe and Canada; some American lactation coaches and physicians encourage its use, although many refuse to prescribe it.
“My doctor wouldn’t give it to me so I had to order it through an online Canadian pharmacy,” says Mary. “I did lots of research and got the green light from my midwife.” Now Mary takes 12 pills per day, along with capsules made with fenugreek, an herb that encourages lactation. She also drinks an herbal formula called More Milk, and pumps once a day, all of which allows her to produce three to four ounces of breast milk per session.
The women don’t have a set routine for who nurses Sequoia. “It’s more, ‘I’m doing dishes and she’s about to wake up — can you nurse her?’” says Mary. “Women have told us that they wouldn’t dream of sharing the breastfeeding experience, but we don’t have any jealousy issues. Everyone wins here.” During the first week of Sequoia’s life, Mary primarily breastfed on the advice of her midwife to kickstart her supply, but now both women share responsibilities.
And, just like other moms, the couple refrigerates and freezes their breast milk, often mixing it all up in one bottle. “In that case, it’s possible that the baby could be getting double the immunity boost from the milk,” says Chana. “Breast milk is always better than no breast milk.”