The Breastfeeding Relationship
Breastfeeding has countless benefits for both a mother and her baby. Some of the most commonly mentioned include: how breast milk changes to meet a baby’s nutritional needs, how it provides immune protection to the baby, how convenient it is, and how it can be protective against certain types of cancers and chronic illnesses.1 But the list really could go on and on! One benefit that is not highlighted enough is the breastfeeding relationship itself and the positive impact it can have on both of you.
The bond of breastfeeding
The relationship between a mother and her baby, no matter the method of feeding or what kind of milk is being used, is a special one. It is interesting to understand and appreciate the unique characteristics of breastfeeding that go beyond meeting a baby’s nutritional and immunological needs. The breastfeeding relationship offers a powerful source of comfort for a mother and her infant while helping to facilitate their bonding and connection.2 This is something we see evidence for in research on adoptive mothers who induce lactation to feed their little ones.1 For a baby who may have experienced trauma or neglect in their past, breastfeeding can play a special role in their healing journey as they develop healthy attachment relationships.1
Unfortunately, many mothers that I have supported as a health care provider have been told that they should not rely on the breast as a method of comfort in their parenting toolkit. They are also warned not to allow babies to drift off to sleep while latched to the breast. These mothers are told that it may be problematic for a baby to create an association between the breast and being comforted, because they need to learn to comfort themselves, and that an association between the breast and falling asleep will mean that the baby will have difficultly ever feeling safe enough to fall asleep on their own.3
This advice is arguably not helpful or empowering, especially when a mother is often using the breastfeeding relationship instinctually to care for her baby’s emotional needs. It is healthy and normal for breastfeeding to play many roles and it is important for parents not to be misguided from using the breastfeeding relationship to support their parenting journey.3
Breastfeeding as a tool to comfort and connect
Breastfeeding is very calming to babies and is a great source of pain relief to them. Suckling and the absorption of fat from a mother’s breastmilk helps in the release of cholecystokinin, a hormone that promotes pain relief and a calming state in the infant.1 This suckling can also divert attention away from external influences, providing a healthy way to distract babies them from bumps and bruises that are inevitable as they start cruising on all fours.
Breastfeeding can also be calming and act to reduce stress in mothers. This is because as a mother breastfeeds, she releases oxytocin. This hormone acts on her nervous system to support a state of relaxation. There are other breastfeeding related hormones that are also at work to support this calm state including prolactin and cholecystokinin.1
A huge benefit to both a mother and her baby that breastfeeding also offers is a space to intimately reconnect. With the neverending curiosity babies enjoy, the breastfeeding relationship and the skin to skin contact it provides gives a chance to regulate after a busy time exploring of the world.
As a breastfeeding mother myself, I can say the breastfeeding relationship has been a huge part of my parenting strategy with both my kids and has helped get us through some tricky times. I encourage all mothers to use the parenting strategies that feel most instinctual to them, and to celebrate what the breastfeeding relationships has to offer while it lasts--because it's over before you know it!
*Originally published January 13, 2017
1. Rollins, Nigel C, et al. (2016). "Why invest, and what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices?" The Lancet. 387 (10017), p 491-504.
2. Gribble, Karleen D. (2006). "Mental health, attachment and breastfeeding: implications for adopted children and their mothers." International Breastfeeding Journal.1(5).
3. Le Leche League International. (2010). The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Ballantine Books, New York.