Co-nursing conundrum: Are four breasts better than two?

Angela Vierling-Claassen, left, and her wife Dorea Vierling-Claassen successfully co-nursed their baby son – but they don't think they'd do it again.
Angela Vierling-Claassen, left, and her wife Dorea Vierling-Claassen successfully co-nursed their baby son – but they don't think they'd do it again.Angela and Dorea Vierling-Claass / Today

Did you ever wish, during those bleary nighttime feedings, for an extra set of boobs to shoulder the burden? Dorea Vierling-Claassen got that wish, when her wife, Angela Vierling-Claassen, agreed to co-nurse.

Co-nursing is exactly what it sounds like: two moms breast-feeding their baby, be it biological or adopted. Thanks to the Newman-Golfarb Protocols for Induced Lactation, women who’ve never been pregnant can successfully breast-feed. But are four breasts better than two?

Not necessarily, said Angela, 40, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her wife, her 5-year-old daughter Margaret, and her 2-year-old son, Jacob. Among the benefits: she’s certain it enhanced her bond with Jacob, who she was first to breast-feed.

“After he was born, Dorea had to go get stitched up, so I was the first person who nursed Jacob,” Angela recalled. “It was really lovely.”

And, she was able to help with the nighttime nursing, which had been a point of tension with their first child. Angela had carried that baby, and the couple had decided against co-nursing while she was pregnant. Too hard, too many chances for hurt feelings.

“When you’re a new lesbian mom and you’ve got one of you pregnant and one of you not, you’ve already got enough issues to wrestle with,” said Angela.

When Dorea, 34, was carrying Jacob, though, she lobbied hard in favor of co-nursing. “I like a challenge, and here was this opportunity unique to our family situation,” she said.

Save for a few blogs, though, there’s not a lot of resources for women who want to co-nurse. Donna Norris, a registered nurse and lactation consultant in Newton, Mass., has worked with lots of lesbian couples, but has seen only a few that attempt to co-nurse.

“If (the couple) has looked into it all, they’ll see that it’s really hard to do. To induce lactation, you have to start way before the baby’s born, do medication, hormones and pump,” said Norris, who works at Newton Wesley Hospital.  “In the end you get some milk, but you often don’t get a full milk supply.”

Angela did all of the above to induce lactation, including lots and lots of pumping. Adopted moms who nurse have the baby at the breast as often as possible, which stimulates milk production.

“In a two-mom family, we were trying to make sure that we protected my full supply,” said Dorea. “Anytime Angela nursed, I needed to pump. And every time I nursed, she needed to pump.”

Angela also took birth control pills to simulate pregnancy, and domperidone, a gastrointestinal drug with a side effect of milk secretion. She also took blessed thistle and fenugreek, two herbs known to increase milk supply. “I got tired of taking 25 pills a day,” she said.

So after six months of co-nursing, Angela hung up her breast pump for good. “It was very successful, and very hard,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t necessarily recommend co-nursing, and definitely not for couples having their first baby: “That would have felt impossible to me.”

“I’m completely thrilled that we did it, and I felt very good about the way that all three of us navigated it, “ said Angela. “And I was completely thrilled to be done with it.”

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