Editor's Note: Some names in this story have been changed at the request of the interview subjects to protect their anonymity.
Ellie* and Garett* have been together for six years. They have a clear affection for each other, touching each other gently on the shoulder when one says something the other appreciates and often looking at each other lovingly throughout conversation. Their respect and adoration for one another comes through even over a Skype call from their home in Queensland, Australia. Their home appears cozy and comfortable, and Garett works long hours while Ellie stays home and tends to household needs. They also engage in what they call "feeding" – Ellie induces lactation and produces breast milk for Garett to consume.
Ellie, 55, and Garett, 57, are in what's known as an "adult nursing relationship," or an "adult breastfeeding relationship." These arrangements are exactly what they sound like – one partner produces milk to share with the other through breastfeeding. For many, there is a sexual aspect to the nursing part of their relationship, but Adult Nursing Relationships (ANRs) are not strictly sexual. On the social media site FetLife, which serves people interested in BDSM and kink, a few thousand users discuss how they simply enjoy the act of suckling or exchanging milk while cuddling or watching TV on some nights, while on other nights the milk exchange may be part of their foreplay or sex itself. The dynamics of these relationships can be incredibly varied, and they are not limited to heterosexual pairings – there are many women who enjoy the act of suckling a partner, too.
People's reasons for entering ANRs can be wildly different. Some are women who decided to induce lactation for their own reasons – perhaps they were unable to have children and lactating makes them feel more connected to their femininity, or provides some sort of emotional satisfaction — and enjoy sharing their milk with partners. Others do it within the context of a monogamous relationship. One woman on FetLife wrote that she induced lactation to nurse her husband but, as he travels a lot, she shares her milk with other men when he is out of town to keep up her milk supply. Chelsea*, a 38-year-old woman who is in an ANR with her wife, decided to induce lactation two years ago in an effort to help with her wife's chronic health problems after medical interventions failed. And still others have breastfeeding relationships that are completely non-sexual in nature. "Personally, I'm platonic when it comes to breastfeeding," wrote one user on FetLife. "The idea of just relaxing, covered in blankets, sipping some tea, coffee, or chai… while breastfeeding in the morning is ideal for me."
Adult nursing relationships are often seen as taboo, as evidenced by sensational reporting, like when the New York Post accompanied a story about a couple in an ANR with the tag "WTF." People who engage in ANR are often portrayed in the media as "freaks," with commenters quick to point out how "gross" the act is. The comments following an ANR story on the website Scary Mommy reveals an array of people offering judgment on the couple in question, with some wondering why they feel the need to share their story publicly, and one commenter going as far as to speculate as to whether the ANR participants are "attention seeking egomaniacs." Even in the world of kink and fetishes, ANR participants are outliers. "Even within the alternative communities, a lot of people don't understand it," Ellie explains. But for her, they don't have to. "It all comes down to one basic premise: your kink is not my kink and that's OK."
Part of ANR's taboo stems from some fundamental misunderstandings about who participates in it – and what it means. Where the "ick" factor comes in for many people – and where the triggering nature of the act lies for some survivors of childhood sexual abuse – is that it's perceived to be sexualizing an act that's associated with babies or child rearing. But this is not adult baby syndrome or age play, which involve the fetish of being infantilized. ANRs occur between two consenting adults who behave as adults within the context of their relationship, whether it's a platonic relationship, romantic relationship, or BDSM relationship. The person suckling the milk from the breast does not pretend to be an infant or child, and the person providing the milk does not baby their partner.
Even in the world of kink and fetishes, ANR participants are outliers.
So what draws people into such uncommon and misunderstood relationships? The most frequent explanation is that it gives the partners a sense of intimacy they wouldn't otherwise be able to achieve – a feeling facilitated by hormones that are secreted in order to produce a bond between mother and child, particularly oxytocin. Oxytocin is often called the "love hormone," and it helps with bonding, creating a feeling of closeness between partners. It is released during arousal and sexual activity, but even more so during nursing. Not only that, its release produces a relaxing effect for both partners. "It's a nice way to relax or fall asleep at the end of the day," says Chelsea. This is partially backed up by scientific research, which shows that oxytocin can lessen fear and anxiety by reducing activation of the amygdala. Prolactin, the other hormone produced by lactation, has also been shown to lower stress in the person producing it, with lactating women demonstrating less intense responses to adrenaline.
Chelsea says that, in her relationship, nursing isn't always a sexual act. "We may cuddle because of the oxytocin and it's a nice way to relax and keep up [milk] supply. But there's no difference in her role or my role in our relationship; we're equals." It's why she chooses to use the word "suckle" to describe her wife taking milk from her breast, instead of "nursing." "Nursing infantilizes the partner," Chelsea explains. Ellie, who breastfed her own kids when they were young, says, "The reality with our relationship is that [Garett] is an adult male and I'm a woman who has grown up children." But, she says, "that is a very different headspace when you are feeding your child versus nursing my adult partner. I don't want to baby him; he doesn't want me to mother him."
And Chelsea doesn't see her relationship as all that different from other, non-adult nursing relationships in which one partner is lactating. "If you're sexually active and nursing, breast milk is a part of your life all the time," she explains. The same oxytocin that's released during nursing is produced during arousal and orgasm, meaning that someone who is lactating to nurse their baby may also experience the release of milk during sex with their partner. In fact, Christopher, 59, says he discovered ANR after he started dating a woman who was breastfeeding her child when they met and he found that he really enjoyed the milk.
Christopher was in a three year ANR with a woman, and as their relationship grew, they found that breastfeeding was an intimate act that bonded them to each other deeply. "I have found that the connection and intimacy connected to ANR is very intense. I tend to feel a calming sense of well-being and being loved that I do not experience from any other form of intimate contact with a companion."
For many people who enter into an ANR, the sense of nurturing the nursing relationship provides is a huge motivation – and reward. For the person being suckled, it creates a feeling of taking care of and nurturing their partner, while the person who does the suckling can feel incredibly connected to their partner and cared for by the act. "The nurturing is a huge part of it," Ellie admits. Garett describes it as "a primal and fundamental connection." He says, "Something like this takes your relationship to another level. Something that is her [her milk] literally becomes part of the person that feeds on it."
That closeness and connection is a theme that comes up over and over again in discussions on FetLife, even more than the sexual nature of breasts or the turn-on of sharing milk with a partner. One user writes, "I think it's very intimate, but it depends on the situation and mood whether it's sexual or not. Sometimes it evokes the most wonderful nurturing feelings and others, it's like a red hot pool of lava has taken over my body and is bursting to get out." In this way, ANR is sexual for many people, and part of the desire to participate comes from being attracted to the act of suckling breasts or being immensely turned on by breast play. So while the majority of ANR participants acknowledge that there is a sexual aspect that draws them to it, the intimacy created between the two participants seems to be the focus.
"[Her breastfeeding is] a demonstration of her loyalty and commitment to me in a very real way."
"In the BDSM context, it's the chance for her to give something directly of herself, it's an act of love and generosity," Garett explains. "I've seen her go through the process of inducing and it takes a huge commitment. It's a demonstration of her loyalty and commitment to me in a very real way."
As Garett suggests, the process of inducing lactation is no joke – it's a huge commitment of time and effort. Chelsea described her journey to lactation as requiring a great deal of patience, time, money, and research. Ellie acknowledges that, at 55, her body isn't really designed to make milk, but "with commitment, I can do it," she says. She has an alarm on her phone that goes off to remind her to pump throughout the day so that she can maintain a milk supply.
In addition to the commitment involved in induction itself, once a milk supply is established, it requires a real dedication on behalf of both members of the relationship to keep it going. Breast milk works by supply and demand: if the body receives the message that no more milk is needed – say, from a lack of nipple stimulation and milk expression – it will stop producing it. But if milk is not expressed on a regular basis, it can also lead to infections or clogged milk ducts, which can be incredibly painful. Therefore both partners need to be willing to ensure that they are prepared for the high level of both physical and emotional dependence that can be created when one partner induces lactation for the other.
After Chelsea's wife began experiencing seizures due to chronic malabsorption – twelve years after undergoing a total colectomy and the removal of several inches from her small intestine – Chelsea decided to try to induce lactation as a last ditch effort to help her, since she knew that breast milk could improve the gut health of infants due to the microbes contained within it. "The living enzymes and bioavailable vitamins in my breast milk not only slowed my wife's chronic, life depleting diarrhea, but also helped her finally utilize the prescription vitamin regimen the traditional medical community encouraged her to follow" since her digestive system became able to tolerate it, Chelsea says. The health benefits of breast milk are not unique to Chelsea and her wife; some studies have even suggested a substance found in human milk has the potential to fight cancer. Anecdotally, people have shared stories of treating their cancer or chemotherapy side effects with breast milk. And despite the lack of a conclusive study, Chelsea and her wife feel confident attributing her general health improvement to the addition of her breast milk because "all other medical interventions in her regimen have remained constant."
And while ANR participants enjoy their relationships immensely, many people who engage in ANR do not find it a constant necessity. Christopher's current partner is not able to lactate, and he says he doesn't restrict new relationships to an ANR-style. Ellie is also prone to losing her milk supply during times of great stress, like when she lost a family member recently. While she does work to re-establish a milk supply, the loss of her milk isn't necessarily seen as a detriment to the already established connection that she and Garett share.
While the ANR community wishes that there were less judgment and stigma around their lifestyle choice, they have also found peace and acceptance among each other. "It is not my place to set anyone straight about ANRs," says Christopher.
Chelsea's concerned with the way our society talks about breast milk and lactation, stigmatizing the act of producing milk. "When milk happens [during sex], if you read things about how it's gross and how only freaks do this, it just goes further to shame people who aren't grossed out by it." The idea that people who participate in ANR are freaks, Chelsea says, is a huge misconception that people in the community want to disabuse. "What's so weird about giving human milk to another human?" Chelsea wonders. "We drink milk from other species but we can't drink it from our own?"
* These names have been changed.