May 11, 2023 • 6 min read

How to Induce Lactation: Pumping, Naturally, Hormones, & More

Medically Reviewed by Kim Langdon, MD on 05.31.23
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Many who adopt a baby or have a baby via surrogacy still want to breastfeed. And even though your body hasn’t gone through pregnancy or birth, it is possible to induce lactation so that you can breastfeed your baby.

In the absence of a pregnancy, the body is missing the hormones that signal it to prepare for lactation. Still, induced lactation is possible with or without hormone therapy.

This guide explains how induced lactation works, how you can do it, and more to help you on your breastfeeding journey.

How to induce lactation

There are two primary hormones involved in lactation: prolactin and oxytocin. Early in pregnancy, the body starts producing prolactin. Once the baby and the placenta are delivered, the drop in other hormones like estrogen causes prolactin to rise.

At the same time, the baby is beginning to suckle the breast in search of milk. This physical contact between the caretaker and the baby signals the body to produce oxytocin. This is why it is common to hear of “skin-to-skin” contact being encouraged between mother and baby immediately after birth.

The presence of both prolactin and oxytocin allows for milk production. Prolactin signals to alveoli in the breast to make milk, while oxytocin allows milk already in the breast to flow out of the milk ducts and to the nipple.

Since individuals who have not experienced pregnancy and birth do not have these hormonal changes taking place, there are alternative steps to take to induce lactation.

Kenita Chenevert, IBCLC, a certified lactation consultant says, “When inducing lactation, the number one piece of advice I have is to stick with it and keep a very consistent schedule.”

1) Pump or stimulate your breasts before the baby arrives

Stimulating the breasts encourages the body to make milk. Up to two months before baby arrives, begin stimulating or pumping the breasts to signal to your body there is a “demand” for breastmilk. 

Try massaging your breasts by hand, at first, for a minute or two. Then, pump with a high-quality, hospital-grade double electric breast pump for short, five-to-ten-minute cycles. Do not pump longer as this may cause discomfort. These pumps can be rented from healthcare facilities for a monthly fee.

Try following this pumping routine with the same frequency that a newborn would feed. This is every three hours or so. 

You will not see the quick arrival of milk in one to three days that someone may have after giving birth. Do not get discouraged. Begin stimulation as soon as you think you may want to breastfeed. This will induce lactation naturally and without synthetic hormones.

“Having the correct flange and a good hospital-grade pump is very necessary,” says Chenevert. “I also like to teach hand expression to help with further milk removal and stimulation for milk production.”

2) Begin working with a lactation consultant  

A lactation consultant is a healthcare professional who has specialized training in breastfeeding and human lactation. Lactation consultants are certified through the International Board of Lactation Consultants, which holds high standards for training and continuing education for consultants to be able to support breastfeeding persons.  

Lactation consultants can help establish a plan to induce lactation and also with maintaining milk supply and continuing breastfeeding after the baby arrives.

Over time, your and your baby’s needs will change. Lactation consultants can help with problems and concerns as they arise such as latching, nipple pain, or positioning.

“Inducing lactation takes a special skill set from your lactation consultant,” says Chenevert. “I do a lot of cheerleading, empowering, validating their efforts through the rough days, and encouraging my patients to succeed. Remember every drop counts!” 

3) Ask about hormone therapy

Hormone therapy may help prepare your breasts to produce milk, much like pregnancy does for a birthing mother. Hormones “trick” the body into thinking it is pregnant. This is most commonly done with birth control pills.

A healthcare provider may prescribe birth control pills containing estrogen and progesterone three to four months before you want to produce milk. There are also other options for hormone therapy, including a combination of patches and oral pills.

It is important to note hormone therapy would stop a month or so before you would like to produce milk. This simulates the “end” of pregnancy to your body and allows hormonal changes to occur that more closely resemble that of a birthing woman after delivery, encouraging lactation.

4) Use a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS)

A supplemental nursing system or SNS allows a baby to feed at the breast while receiving supplemental breast milk or formula at the same time. Milk is stored in a container such as a bag or a bottle and a small tube travels from the container to the baby’s mouth. Baby’s mouth is latched at the breast with this tube delivering milk at the same time as the breast.

Initially, this will be helpful to induce full lactation since more stimulation signals the body to make more breast milk. As you lactate more over time, you can reduce the amount of milk in the supplemental container, so the baby is always getting the appropriate nutrition at the breast.

5) Try galactagogues

Galactagogues are foods or drinks that are thought to increase milk supply when ingested. Researchers believe that more evidence is needed to concretely recommend any particular galactagogue, but many women and practitioners report having success with them.

“I have a special appreciation for the use herbal galactagogues and lactogenic foods alongside a good hydration regimen,” says certified lactation consultant Chenevert. “Together, this is a great way to really support the body to optimize milk production.” 

You can find plentiful resources about galactagogues online and in print, including cookbooks with recipes for including them in your diet.

>> Read more: What to Drink to Increase Breastmilk Supply

6) Spend time around other babies

Oxytocin is the hormone that causes milk to flow out of the milk ducts. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love” or “happy” hormone. Seeing, cuddling, or hearing a baby signals to the body to produce oxytocin.

As you are working to induce lactation, try spending time around other babies or young children. This may increase your oxytocin and therefore support induced lactation.

7) Track steps and progress

Keep a journal of what steps or methods you have tried to induce lactation and build your milk supply. You should also track where you are and what time of day you are stimulating, pumping, or feeding.

This information will help a lactation consultant or other healthcare provider understand

where you are in your breastfeeding journey. It will also be encouraging for you to see your own progress documented along the way.

How long does it take to induce lactation?

How long it takes to induce lactation is different for everyone. The earlier you begin taking steps towards inducing milk production, especially through regular pumping, the more successful inducing lactation may be.

It could take more than four weeks before any milk is produced, so it is best to begin two months or so before the baby arrives.

If you’re aware that you will want to produce breast milk with even more lead time and are open to considering hormone therapy, that may start four to six months before the baby arrives.

Inducing lactation is a slow process. Be patient with yourself and your body.

Signs that induced lactation is working:

Each case of inducing lactation in someone who did not experience a physiological pregnancy is unique. Still, there are some signs that efforts to induce lactation are working.

  • Breast changes. If you are stimulating your breasts and pumping with regularity, you should begin to see some changes in your breasts. Typically, breasts increase in size to accommodate active milk production.
  • Responding to hormone therapy. Your body’s response to hormone therapy will be unique to you. However, certain bodily changes may signal hormones are working as they should. For example, if you take an estrogen and progesterone combination birth control pill (with no sugar pills), your periods may stop. This is to be expected with that particular hormone treatment plan.
  • Milk droplets. Producing even the smallest amount of milk indicates you are successfully inducing lactation! Keep going and seek support when you need it.

What if I’m having trouble inducing lactation?

Encountering challenges when inducing breastfeeding is normal. “This process can be very stressful,” says Chenevert “and it’s hard to stay consistent when you aren’t seeing immediate results. Patience and consistency are your most important tools.”

A lactation consultant, like Chenevert, can help you troubleshoot and work through the ups and downs you experience along the way.

Some possible challenges include:

  • Finding resources. It can be confusing to know who to turn to or where to seek support that is specific to your situation. 
  • Support from healthcare providers. Inducing is not as common a topic as breastfeeding after pregnancy and birth. Some providers may not have experience with specifics around inducing lactation.
  • Delayed or stalled milk production. Sometimes progress while inducing lactation stalls. Perhaps you are able to produce a small amount of milk, but it is not increasing. This is unpredictable and understandably difficult.

A lactation consultant or healthcare provider skilled in inducing lactation may be able to help with these issues.

It is also important that you take care of yourself at this time, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Stay hydrated and eat well.

Seek mental health support if you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. The more support you have and the patience you practice, the better for inducing lactation.

Jenna Nelson is a Certified Lactation Counselor and has a Masters Degree in Maternal/Child Public Health from Boston University. She is also a working mother with lived experience navigating the maternal health system.