Monday, June 13, 2011

Comfort Nursing = Eating Disorder!?

There is this really persistent opinion about comfort nursing that keeps popping up everywhere I go which basically boils down to the notion that nursing your baby or toddler for comfort will teach them bad habits & set them up for life-long obesity.

The logic, as I've heard and understood it from people who hold this opinion, goes something like this:

  • Childhood obesity is on the rise. 
  • Eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food are prevalent in our society. 
  • Emotional eating, or eating for comfort, (or even enjoying food at all it would seem) are 'bad habits' that will make you fat. 
  • To prevent obesity we must strictly control our children's food intake to build 'healthy habits'. 
  • Comfort nursing is emotional eating and therefore teaching 'unhealthy habits'.

On a whole this kind of logic doesn't really surprise me. Our culture has some pretty screwed up perceptions about food. Unfortunately, those perceptions get projected onto our children and drive us to do some weird things to the way we feed them.

Kind of like the way some parents feel they need or want to force their children into emotional independence before they are ready. They perceive dependence as bad and their infants to be 'needy' or 'whiny' because their own relationships & experiences with trust, reliance and independence are negative or unhealthy.

When it comes to attachment style parenting every parent does things differently, but there are a few very basic roots that apply to all attached parent/child relationships. Mainly that reliably anticipating and meeting the basic needs of our children is essential to a secure attachment. So let's use this as a jumping off point for my logic regarding comfort nursing:

  • Needs that are met go away, and needs that go unmet persist, are internalized, then eventually show themselves in other ways. 
  • Comfort is a basic need. 
  • Breastfeeding is the biological norm for human beings, and left to their own devices, mothers will instinctively put their babies to breast on demand. 
  • As a breastfeeding mother, I know that babies and toddlers are pretty demanding and make it very clear when they would like to nurse. They are often most insistent when they are in need of immediate comfort. 
  • I would therefore conclude that nursing for comfort is an instinctual and natural coping method for young children in stressful situations.

That's basically my end point. Nursing for comfort is natural. It is what we were meant to do.

Are there other ways to comfort a child? Of coarse there are, and I don't judge anyone who chooses them over comfort nursing in any given moment, but there is also nothing wrong with relying on what is likely the easiest and most effective comfort tool available to breastfeeding mothers. When weaning does happen, the parent child relationship evolves and other forms of comfort are developed. naturally.

With all this in mind, I think it is safe to say that comfort nursing your baby or toddler will not give them an eating disorder any more then rocking them to sleep every night will give them insomnia, or wearing them in a carrier will limit their ability to walk.

What's more, I can think of at least 10 very important and practical reasons to go ahead and let your child nurse for comfort and ignore anyone who tries to tell you you're doing something wrong.

1) As mentioned above, nursing for comfort is the natural way for human children to cope with stress.

2) The act of breastfeeding releases hormones that help YOU relax in a stressful situation.

3) Nursing on demand whether for food or comfort helps to maintain adequate milk supply for your child's growing needs.

4) Comfort nursing gives you a moment or so of quiet to determine possible causes and solutions to the problem that needs comforting (especially handy when tantrum-y toddlers have you at your wits end!)

5) Frequent nursing for food or for comfort helps to prevent and alleviate issues such as: leaking, engorgement, plugged ducts, and mastitis.

6) frequent on demand nursing for food or comfort helps strengthen parent child attachment. Which has been shown to have many benefits for the child's health and well being.

7) Nursing for comfort is sometimes the only chance you'll have in a day to snuggle a busy on the go baby or toddler.

8) Comfort nursing reduces the likelihood of further tantrums or melt downs by giving your child a shot of nutrient dense milk to take the edge off their thirst or hunger and maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

9) Frequent on demand nursing for food or comfort lowers your child's risk of dehydration. Particularly in hot seasons/climates, during illness, or during a long and busy day when it's easy to forget to rehydrate often.

10) Frequent on demand nursing for food or comfort can delay the return of your menstrual cycle!!


Emily said... [Reply to comment]

Yahoo for #10! ;) I'm expecting my 3rd baby next month, so I've been reading up on all kinds of baby care as a refresher! I've also found this Mom's Guide to caring for teeth to be helpful across the stages of infancy and childhood, if you want to check it out. ( I'm really hoping this baby will be born with the knack for nursing unlike my last 2 (seriously grateful for lactation nurses and their ongoing support!!) Thanks for your insightful post. Getting more excited about another baby to snuggle and nurse!! :)

Sheila said... [Reply to comment]

Well, considering that breastfed children have LESS obesity than formula-fed kids, I really don't think there's any support to the notion that comfort nursing causes obesity! Because if it did, most breastfed kids would be obese.

My husband's mom had 10 kids, about half of whom she breastfed. The formula-fed kids are the ones who are picky eaters and have weight issues. The breastfed ones are rail-thin and eat all kinds of food. Kind of a neat demonstration of the good breastfeeding does for your future relationship with food!

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