by Linda Folden Palmer, D.C.
Breastfeeding isn’t only about providing mother’s milk. While seldom recognized in literature, doctors’ advice or common conversation, there’s a whole lot more to breastfeeding than nutrition and immunity, and some of this can be achieved during bottle feeding as well.
Breastfeeding has taken quite a bashing over the last century. In order to rebuild acceptance of breastfeeding, breastfeeding advocates have focused on the importance its nutritive and immune support roles. But breastfeeding is designed to be much more than just providing food – it is a time for nursing, a time for comfort and nurturing. This is a time for studying and memorizing each other’s faces, for speaking or singing to your baby and developing her trust and nonverbal communication.
Babies clearly seek nursing in order to ease the pain of a bump or illness, to relieve stress or to regain security after being frightened. It’s obviously effective. And whenever allowed, babies usually engage in comfort nursing long after nutrition needs have been satiated, deepening the soothing, bonding and educational relationship between mother and child.
Not all of these benefits are exclusive to breastfeeding mothers and babies. Bottle feeding mothers can achieve many of these benefits, as well. It’s possible to “nurse” your baby, whether at bottle or at breast.
“Nursing” is more than breastfeeding
In your arms or snuggled alongside you, your baby is nurtured by the snuggly warmth of your body and comforted by your familiar scent (pheromones). He hears the beat of your heart and the sound of your voice. His neurons and hormones program him to desire and flourish in this environment – a means of ensuring his protection, survival and optimal development. And when allowed, your baby’s powerful imprint on your pheromonal messages is second only to his programmed need and yearning for sucking.
Science has demonstrated how a baby’s optimal development occurs through his neurological and hormonal responses to these planned inputs. Providing these stimuli for your baby means providing the advantages, as well.
Babies often engage in comfort nursing (also known as non-nutritive sucking) well beyond their need for taking in milk for nourishment. Given the opportunity, most babies will comfort nurse – and for baby’s benefit, it’s a good thing. Comfort nursing satiates your baby’s needs for soothing, familiarity and educational parent-child exchanges. Your baby needs to nurse for security, positive hormonal releases, bonding and company.
The importance of sucking to a baby’s comfort and well being is well demonstrated. In a Chicago sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) study, bottle-fed infants who enjoyed the added use of a pacifier (which makes up for comfort nursing time) had only one-third the rate of SIDS as those who did not use pacifiers, and those who breastfed had only one-fifth the rate of SIDS.
EEG studies of babies’ brains while sucking at the breast demonstrate increased activity in areas of the brain that govern alertness and attention as well as in areas that control the cycle of sleeping and waking. Bottle-feeding produces similar but smaller changes in brain patterns.
Many babies who are fed on strict schedules or quickly removed from the breast or bottle as soon as active feeding is done will seek a thumb or finger to suck on or take to a pacifier. This demonstrates their strong inborn requirement for more comfort sucking. Allow your baby to continue to breastfeed as long as she wishes for comfort. Bottlefeeding parents can offer comfort nursing by holding their babies and allowing them to continue sucking on a bottle or pacifier.
Sucking Relieves Pain and Soothes Babies
Researchers have shown that breastfeeding reduces pain for babies. A recent assessment measured a great reduction in babies’ pain during medical procedures if they breastfed during the procedure. Some reduction in pain was demonstrated with pacifier sucking, but simply holding a baby in his mother’s arms did not provide measurable relief.
Clearly, babies are meant to return to their mothers after a bump or to demand frequent nursing when ill. When your baby is sick, the soothing qualities of being held and sucking is both healing and helps relieve symptoms for your infant. Nursing keeps baby close to you so you can best monitor your baby’s status. Quick, safe, and easy, nursing your baby (holding her and allowing her to suck) is meant to soothe the physical pains of babyhood.
Sucking Promotes Sleep
Another powerful benefit of breastfeeding (and sucking) is its promotion of sleep in baby and in a sleepy mommy. The peace and quiet allow dad to sleep, too.
Some parenting “experts” recommend withholding from your baby all the comforts that would normally induce sleep, including pacifiers, rocking and allowing him to fall asleep at the breast or bottle. These same “experts” then have the opportunity to teach tough-love tactics, which attempt to coerce your perplexed, forsaken baby to sleep without any of his natural tools.
All the crying that ensues produces stress hormone releases in your baby, discouraging sleep until sheer exhaustion takes over. And after all is said and done, you are left to try to get to sleep with your own stress hormones surging through your bloodstream, as well.
The reality is that babies come with a simple and wonderful program in place for falling asleep: breastfeeding. A mother’s body passes comforting hormones into her own body and into her baby’s milk in response to the suckling. Babies release their own comforting hormones, as well, during parental contact and especially when sucking. Together, the warmth, security, full tummy, tiredness from sucking effort and comforting hormones induce sleep naturally.
Nursing your baby to sleep, whether at the breast or the bottle, is a great way to achieve these effects.
The benefits of skin-to-skin contact
Many studies demonstrate the benefits of skin-to-skin contact in babies. One measurable benefit of such contact is increased oxytocin releases in both you and your infant. Regular, high oxytocin levels not only comfort you and your baby but they serve to increase your sense of satisfaction with motherhood.
Higher levels of oxytocin, especially when created through frequent or prolonged body contact, encourage other kinds of positive hormonal interactions to occur as well. These provide physical rewards to protect the desires for maintaining close family relationships.
Long-term benefits of regularly high oxytocin levels include a reduction in heart disease risk factors for you and your baby. Your child may enjoy lower blood pressure and healthier arteries throughout his life as a result. Furthermore, regular high oxytocin actually reduces the severity of your child’s lifelong reactions to stress.
Preemies are the most often studied in terms of skin-to-skin contact, since they are the most accessible to observe during their stays in neonatal intensive care units, and measurable results are often quite pronounced in this most vulnerable age group. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that preemies are the only babies who benefit from skin-to-skin contact!
In premature newborns, skin-to-skin contact leads to superior temperature control, lower heart rates and life-saving oxygen regulation. The hospital stays of preemies who receive skin-to-skin contact are much shorter. Milk production in mothers is greatly improved when they share this contact with their preemies, and their attachment and maternal behaviors are enhanced. “Kangaroo care preemies” (those kept close to mother’s skin and breastfed when possible) are found to gain twice as much weight per day as incubator babies.
The benefits are clear: snuggle your baby. Breastfeed frequently; if you bottle feed, don’t prop your baby’s bottle and walk away. Your baby’s health will benefit!
Seeing Eye to Eye
Feeding time is also designed to encourage your baby’s reception of positive activities such as studying your face, exchanging expressions with you and sharing verbal cues. Not only does this deepen the attachment between the two of you, but much of your baby’s early verbal, emotional and social learning is meant to occur during this focused time.
Cute little ornaments hanging over cribs are meant to provide entertainment as well as practice in focusing on and reaching for objects. Your face peering down at your baby during a feeding offers a much superior form of these same rewards.
Holding, Rocking and Cuddling
The need for frequent breastfeeding throughout the day and night ensures that babies gets their fill of holding, rocking and cuddling. Natural, on-cue breastfeeding ensures that mothers will take the time with sufficient frequency to provide ample nurturing attention. Bottlefeeding parents can do this, too, by making feeding times cherishable times and remembering to hold their babies frequently throughout the day.
While the analysis didn’t measure breastfeeding, one hospital study compared the responses of newborns to standard and what they call “enhanced” care. Newborns were rocked, cuddled, offered verbal and visual stimulation and allowed to suck on a pacifier as much as they desired. In comparison with infants who received standard hospital care, these babies demonstrated superior temperature regulation and respiratory rates; far fewer heart murmurs were detected, fewer sucking and swallowing difficulties were seen and almost no crying was found.
Lest you think this “nursing” your baby sounds sweet but offers intangible rewards, look again at all the benefits of holding your baby and allowing her to suck at will.
– easing of pain and discomfort
– protection during illness
– building of bonding and attachment with parents
– social development
– inducing sleep
– building of trust in parents
– visual development
– development of communication skills
– building brain organization toward positive stress handling throughout life
– reduced heart disease risk factors
– lowered risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)
Breastfeeding provides full nutrition and amazing immune protection for baby, but that’s only the beginning. Nursing your baby – holding her close, letting her suck at will, and offering skin-to-skin contact frequently throughout the day – provides benefits for both breastfed and bottle fed babies. And what a wonderful beginning it can be!
About Dr. Linda Palmer
Dr. Linda Palmer is the author of Baby Matters: What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Caring for Your Baby. For more information go to her site.
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