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by Gale Pryor
The Role of Breastfeeding in Bonding
Breastfeeding usually plays an integral role in forming the deep attachment between mother and baby. Bottle-feeding mothers, of course, can also be securely attached to their babies. There are many tools in the attachment kit; breastfeeding is but one. It is, however, an extraordinarily powerful one.
Breastfeeding is designed by nature to ensure maternal-infant interaction and closeness. If done without schedules or other restrictions, breastfeeding guarantees that you and your baby will be in close physical contact 8 to 18 times in every 24 hours. In fact, nursing mothers tend to be with their infants altogether more than other mothers. In the first 10 days after birth, nursing mothers hold their babies more than bottle-feeding mothers, even when they are not nursing. They rock their babies more, speak to their babies more, and are more likely to sleep with their babies. In Western society many women never hold a newborn until they give birth to their own, yet this frequent skin-to-skin contact and interaction soon make up for even a complete lack of familiarity with babies. The mother who immerses herself in her newborn, breastfeeding frequently and without restrictions, quickly learns to read her baby’s cues and to trust her own instincts. She extends the gentle give-and-take, the empathy, and the commitment of breastfeeding into the rest of her mothering. Nursing her baby provides her with a blueprint for sensitive parenting in the years to come.
Nursing couples need each other physically and emotionally. The baby, of course, has a physical need for milk. As scientists have amply documented, breast milk benefits every system in a baby’s body. Breastfeeding offers protection against allergies and respiratory infections, and perhaps obesity. Breastfeeding improves vision and oral development; breastfed babies have fewer ear infections; breast milk is better for the cardiovascular system and kidneys; and babies’ intestinal immunity is enhanced by human milk. Juvenile diabetes is less common among breastfed than bottle-fed babies. Breastfeeding enhances a baby’s cognitive development, partially because it allows the baby more control in feeding–the ability to control one’s own actions appears to be essential in human development. The composition of breast milk, too, appears to support optimal brain development. Indeed, recent studies have found that children fed mother’s milk as babies have higher IQs, on average, than those fed formula.
And, of course, a baby’s emotional need for love and reassurance is just as strong as her physical need for milk. Whereas most formula-fed babies are soon taught to hold their own bottles, the breastfed baby is always held by her mother for feedings. A breastfed baby enjoys not only the comfort of the warm breast, but caressing, rocking, and eye contact before, during, and after feedings. With all her senses, she drinks in her mother’s love.
The mother, in turn, has a physical need for the baby to take the milk from her breasts. The let-down of milk is relieving, satisfying, like a drink of water when one is thirsty. When your newborn begins to suck at your breast, or even just to mouth your nipple, the hormone oxytocin is released in your body, hastening the contraction of your uterus and inducing the let-down or milk-ejection reflex, which begins your milk flow. Called “the love hormone” because it is also produced during sexual intercourse and birth, oxytocin brings on a sudden feeling of contentment and pleasure as you breastfeed your baby. In this way you and your baby become a happy team at feedings, each amply rewarded by the other for her efforts.
The Confident Parent
Successful breastfeeding not only tends to produce healthy, happy babies, it also creates confident mothers. Marianne Neifert, a pediatrician and mother of five, saw this in her practice. “I began to recognize the impact of early parenting experiences, such as breastfeeding, on long-term parental competency. A woman who received necessary support and information, which enabled her to breastfeed as long as she had planned, tended to look back on her experience with pride and satisfaction. Her confidence radiated to other areas of mothering, and she viewed herself as a competent and successful parent.”
“Breastfeeding nudges other aspects of maternal behavior.” –Niles Newton
Breastfeeding’s gift of confidence comes as you nurture your baby with your own body and mind. Parents who use formula often rely completely on manufacturers’ and doctors’ advice, and so develop little faith in their own judgment. And, whereas a breastfeeding mother generally leaves milk composition, temperature, cleanliness, and intake to nature, for the formula-feeding parent these are all subjects for worry and argument, which further erode her confidence.
Parenting styles differ enormously from family to family, and many different kinds of families produce wonderful children. Whatever their parenting style, though, mothers and fathers who are confident in themselves as parents tend to raise equally self-assured children. These parents not only teach self-esteem by modeling it, but because they are self-confident they are also empathetic. They respond to their children’s needs, and thereby help their children to feel secure, trusting, and confident in themselves and their world.
Far more valuable than advice from relatives, friends, or experts is the knowledge within you that you are completely capable of caring for and raising your new baby. Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist, writes in A Good Enough Parent that “acting on the recommendations of others cannot evoke in us the feelings of confirmation that well up in us only when we have understood on our own, in our own ways, what is involved in a particular situation, and what we can therefore do about it.” Successful breastfeeding kindles these “feelings of confirmation” for the breastfeeding mother knows in her heart that she can nurture her child well.
Breastfeeding, in short, is much more than a feeding method. Beyond providing perfect nutrition at every stage of your baby’s growth, breastfeeding is a language, subtle and intimate, between you and your baby, as well as a proud and marvelous expression of your unique abilities as a woman. When you return to work, breastfeeding will ensure that the bond between you and your baby cannot be weakened by your frequent separations.
The Risks of Working to Bonding
Bonding usually proceeds without our thinking about it much. We get pregnant, we give birth, we fall in love with our babies, we decide to breastfeed, we become mothers in tune with our babies. Voila. We have accomplished one of life’s major transitions, becoming a mother. Unless we don’t.
Sometimes women don’t fully traverse the divide between childless woman and mother. They have babies, but they resist the bone deep commitment that comes with motherhood. After all, becoming a mother is a frightening, gigantic leap into a new, all-encompassing stage of life. Motherhood threatens to submerge both accomplishments of the past and goals of the future, as well as one’s present sense of self. The fear of losing oneself in its flood waters is entirely normal.
Besides, in American culture today, motherhood receives scant respect, especially among high-achievers. If your self-respect comes mainly from your success at work, especially if that work is competitive and pressured, reentering the world with mother suddenly attached to your identity can be dismaying, to say the least. Despite the impressive diplomacy and managerial skills with which motherhood endows women, the business world holds mothers in suspicion. We are widely suspected of not being truly committed to our jobs and our
And, as nursing mothers will tell you in chorus, breastfeeding has the most marvelous calming effect on them. A recent study documents their experience: At one month postpartum, breastfeeding women were significantly less anxious than formula-feeding women. The breastfeeding hormones, oxytocin and prolactin, cause a feeling of well-being that tends to promote maternal behavior. Also, the act of breastfeeding requires a woman to relax. No matter how hectic her life, a breastfeeding mother must sit or lie down with her baby eight or more times a day. And we mustn’t discount the simple joy and peace of mind that come with cuddling a secure, satisfied, comfortable baby.
Whether or not they care that nursing is good for their health, most nursing mothers would say that breastfeeding’s primary benefit is convenience. Although breastfed babies nurse more frequently than do formula-fed babies, the non-nursing mother must dedicate a great deal of time to purchasing and mixing formula, cleaning bottles and nipples, and warming bottles. Unlike formula, breast milk is always ready, warm, and, as long as the baby continues to nurse frequently, plentiful. When the baby is hungry, the breastfeeding mother simply finds a comfortable place to sit or lie down with him. At night, whereas the formula-feeding parent must wake up and get out of bed to prepare a bottle, the breastfeeding mother can have her baby brought to her, or, if her baby is sharing her bed, nurse without ever fully waking up. A breastfed baby is also highly portable: There are no bottles to pack and carry; there is no need to find a place to mix formula and heat the bottle. A spare diaper in her purse, and the breastfeeding mother and her baby are on their way.
The Benefits of Breastfeeding for Working Mothers
Many women going back to work decide that the “added stress” of nursing is the last thing they need. As many working women can attest, however, their lives are made easier rather than harder by breastfeeding. One experienced mother finds that “breastfeeding is the easier part of being a working mother. It’s much harder finding time to iron a shirt.”
The immunologic properties of breast milk benefit working parents as much as their babies. Breastfed babies wake their parents less often at night with earaches and stuffy noses. Because breastfed babies are generally healthier, they also tend to be happier. They cry less, smile more, and are less wearying to care for after a long day at work.
The anti-infective properties of breast milk are a real boon when a baby is or will be in group day care. Babies in day care are exposed to more germs than are babies cared for at home. But when these babies are breastfed, they are protected against many serious bacterial and viral infections and secondary complications. And the lower incidence and severity of illness in breastfed babies reduces the time their parents must take off from work.
The flood of relaxation that comes with the let-down of milk is made to order for stressed-out working mothers. You may find that, after nursing your baby at the end of the day, you have trouble remembering what had so vexed you at work just a few hours earlier. Your slate is wiped clean, and you can more easily and calmly attend to your family and yourself for the rest of the evening. A pediatrician comments, “My greatest release after coming home is putting up my feet and nursing the baby. We both feel wonderful. It is my unwinding time.”
For the typical nursing and working mother, the most important benefit of breastfeeding is that day after day it confirms that she is irreplaceable to her baby. Most women who decide to breastfeed do so for their babies’ sakes. Only later do they discover that it’s good for them, too. For working mothers, breastfeeding is a friend, a constant ally against the anxiety that comes from having to leave their babies in someone else’s care for most of the day, and wondering if they are good-enough mothers. For your baby, after all, the babysitter may be very nice, but only Mama has a soft, sweet-smelling breast and warm, sweet-tasting milk. And when you pick up the baby and nurse at the end of a work day, you and she are immediately a couple again. There is no “getting to know you again” period for a working mother and her nursing baby.
A physician says, “Nursing has been a wonderful way to reconnect with my children while working. My daughter’s favorite time to nurse is right after I get home at the end of the day. Even though she now goes all day without nursing, she gets a little frantic once I get home, and she really wants to nurse. I have found that nursing puts life into perspective. The sense of accomplishment, bonding, and wellbeing that I get from nursing makes me less anxious about having to leave her during the day.”
A book editor concurs. “I like that it keeps me feeling connected to him all day long. I’m forced to take ‘baby time’ when I’m at work, and I can even go see him and share our bond in the middle of a work day if I want. It helps ease the transition for me to nurse him when I drop him off and when I pick him up. I also feel like I’m still mothering him even when I’m not with him, by continuing to provide pumped breast milk for him.”
A social worker who formula-fed her first baby and breastfed her second speaks poignantly of the difference: “Since my mother-in-law took care of my first child eight to ten hours a day and since she could feed him just as well as I could, sometimes I felt as though he was more hers than mine. Since I had to be away from him 40 hours a week, breastfeeding could have tied us back together at the end of the day. Not breastfeeding my son is one of the greatest regrets of my life. My experience with him made me determined to have a different experience when my daughter was born.”
Breastfeeding after returning to work is a way to tie the two halves of your life together. It will help you to make sense of yourself in the challenging new role as mother while continuing your pre-baby work life. Learning the job of motherhood is hard enough without the distractions of responsibilities outside the home, but when you’re trying to maintain your identity as a working woman you have an intensified need for the lessons taught by breastfeeding. You can rely on breastfeeding as a blueprint for the intuitiveness, nurturing, and empathy that comes with experienced mothering. Through breastfeeding, you can give your child the best possible beginning, and in return you will gain confidence in yourself as a mother.
Parenting by Instinct
Once we consider all the aspects of breastfeeding–behavioral, immunologic, and nutritive–we cannot help but be impressed by how perfectly we humans have evolved to feed our babies. This may lead us to wonder what other special baby-care behaviors have evolved with our species. If you traveled now to societies that are still much the same as they have been for thousands of years, what would you see? How do parents take care of babies in cultures unchanged by such technological marvels as the clock, the baby bottle, and the baby carriage?