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Feeding Your Foster Baby

It's been a long time since I've written about adoption and foster care on this blog.  Since our anniversary of becoming parents through adoption is coming up, I thought this would be a good time to address it again.  I originally wrote this article for a guest posting opportunity, which fell through.

Related: Foster to Adopt Party Ideas

My three children were adopted at young toddlers from foster care. My oldest, Dragonfly, was three months old when we welcomed her into our home, Skimmer was four months, and Tadpole was a newborn. Although the three kids share a birth mom, they were three separate legal cases with about twenty social workers over four years. Raising someone else's children has unique challenges, including ones that most people don't consider like breastfeeding.


If you're like most people that I've encountered in our years as foster and adoptive parents, you're probably thinking “breast is best” and assume that foster babies will be breastfed just like a biological child. Unfortunately, in many US counties, breastfeeding and even pumped breastmilk is illegal for foster babies to consume.

Breastmilk can contain viruses (like HIV), bacteria, and legal or illegal drugs. Safe handling of the breastmilk can also be an issue, whether it's stored properly, used in a certain amount of time, or transported correctly. Both of these issues are the reason why using liquid gold from a milk bank isn't permissible as well.

The uniqueness of the situation as one mom raising another mother's child brings many reasons for the lack of breastfeeding. Foster babies need to be flexible, to be able to take a bottle, and to be able to take that bottle from anyone. The nature of breastfeeding is very exclusive and could make the child reject nurturing or feeding from the birth mother in the case where the foster mom is breastfeeding. Since the goal of foster care is reunification with the biological parents, anything that hinders the birth mom from bonding with her child or maintaining an attachment to him/her is forbidden.

Formula feeding is also just more convenient for everyone involved. The birth parents are able to buy the formula at any grocery store to bring to visits with their child. The social worker can also easily find the correct formula, teach the parents how to make a bottle, or instruct the foster parents on which formula the child prefers. Formula is also covered as part of WIC (a government feeding program for women and children), which makes it cheap and easy for biological and foster parents to obtain.

Occasionally, the State will permit breastfeeding or a judge will rule on a foster child having breastmilk. However, any prospective foster parent should realize that breastfeeding will most likely not be possible. If breastfeeding is a conviction for you, other adoption options should be explored.


If you've never bottlefed a baby, it can be a bit challenging to know what to buy for formula feeding. We tried several bottle and nipple options before settling on the Playtex Drop-in bottles. The “feeding system” comes with a bottomless tube that the disposable bags get dropped into, a plastic ring to close the bottle, and a nipple. You can buy different nipples for each stage, but my kids preferred the newborn version through toddlerhood. Although the drop-ins add another expense to bottlefeeding, the convenience of not having to scrub bottles with a special brush was worth it.

When I was out of the house with my baby, I packed a formula dispenser with a measured amount of powder for three bottles. I also brought an 8 oz water bottle with clean water in case I didn't have access to water when I was away from home. Depending on the climate and your comfort level, a small can of formula powder could also be kept in the car for emergencies.

Before I would go to bed at night, I would also load up a formula dispenser. I was usually so tired (especially after getting three babies under 26 months) that I couldn't trust myself to measure the powder properly or get it into the bottle top. By using the dispenser, I was able to pop the cap and dump, saving me a lot of mess.


Foster babies may need special formulas or extra love. One of my children had been in three other homes before coming to our house (or four moms in her first three months). When she arrived, she was failure to thrive and had “forgotten” how to suck a bottle. I spent many hours (weeks) dripping milk into her mouth. I want to caution you that feedings won't necessarily be problem free just because you're bottlefeeding instead of breastfeeding.


One of the buzzwords in foster care and adoption is “attachment.” The word specifically refers to the bond between children and their parents or primary caregiver. Many would argue that breastfeeding is superior to bottlefeeding since the opportunity to a good attachment is part of the breastfeeding experience, largely due to the built-in skin to skin contact.

Foster babies can be laid against your exposed stomach to get some skin to skin while bottlefeeding. Baby massage is another good way to increase your physical touching time. Depending on your comfort level and the rules of your state, you may be able to bathe with your foster child (a swimming pool is a good alternative). Of course, foster babies need a lot of kisses, hugs, and caresses all day long, just like your biological child needed.

Eye contact is another big goal in bottlefeeding. Because the child doesn't need milk from your body, it can be tempting to have them hold their own bottle. As much as possible, the primary caregiver should be the one actively feeding the baby. If the child resists eye contact, turn his or her body in toward yours in a more breastfeeding-like position so that they're less distracted by their environment. Talk to the baby and engage him or her meaningfully. Smile and encourage the baby to smile back at you.

In breastfeeding there is a natural movement of the baby from one side of the mom's body to the other side. The different positions means that the child's right and left eyes each get a chance to be the primary eye, which strengthens them and makes the brain work harder.  Even if it's not as comfortable for the foster parent, try to switch up which arm you hold the baby in for feedings to help mimic the breastfeeding experience.


Breastfeeding advocates will often extol the virtues of extended breastfeeding. They'll talk about comfort, extra nutrition, attachment, and more. Extended bottlefeeding can also be valuable for foster children. Sucking is a very comforting experience, and sucking a bottle reminds children of being cared for and loved.

I had one child who stopped drinking completely after I tried to wean her from a bottle at one year old. She was failure to thrive when she arrived at our house and any sort of change caused her to regress to that state again. We ended up weaning her off formula and onto water and continuing the bottle for a few more years. As a foster parent, you need to be willing to do whatever is best for your child, even if it goes against cultural or societal norms.


I asked my children if there was anything they would want to add to the instructions. My oldest said, “Take care of the babies and never forget about them.” That's the most important part about feeding your foster baby.

This was a deeply personal article for me to write, as are all my adoption blog posts (which is probably why they don't come up very often).  I hope that I have answered some of your questions about why breastfeeding is not always the best option for foster kids, and how to accomplish some of the same benefits of breastfeeding even while using a bottle instead.  Remember, "Fed not dead."  As my seven year old daughter said, just love on your babies and feed them the best way that you can.

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