“Don’t let your baby use you for a pacifier.” “He’s only nursing for comfort; he’s not really hungry.”
If you’re a breastfeeding mother, you’ve probably heard comments like this.
Certainly Jolene Friesen-Stoesz has. She’s the mother of Jacob, now two years old, who was a frequent nurser. As she’s learned more about breastfeeding, the comments bothered her less: “You can’t really tease apart a baby’s need for food and need for comfort. They’re both important aspects of breastfeeding.”
In fact, breastfeeding turns out to be an impressive form of comfort. Lactation consultant Fleur Bickford of Ottawa says that a 2009 study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that breastfeeding was more effective than any other intervention (being held, sucking on a pacifier, oral glucose solution or formula feeding) in reducing a baby’s pain after a heel prick, as measured by several factors including the amount of crying and the baby’s heart rate. “Babies go to the breast for many reasons — they’re hungry or thirsty, they’re tired, they’re scared or hurt, they’re feeling overwhelmed. All of these are equally valid reasons for a baby to nurse,” says Bickford.
Friesen-Stoesz feels breastfeeding is made more difficult when we put arbitrary limits on it: “Comments like ‘he’s only nursing for comfort’ are based on ideas about schedules and how often a baby should nurse that just aren’t valid.” That’s especially true in the early weeks, says Bickford, when milk production is being established and frequent feedings are important to signal the mother’s body to produce enough milk.
Can I overfeed my baby?
But wait — what about overfeeding? We hear so much about the need to prevent children from becoming overweight: Won’t feeding the baby every time he wants comfort lead to overeating? No, says Bickford. “The research shows that babies who are not breastfed are the ones who are more likely to be obese, and one theory about this is that breastfed babies are in control over how much milk they take in.”
She adds that the baby seeking comfort isn’t thinking about food. He’s thinking I need my mother. The skin-to-skin contact, and the reassurance of his mother’s voice, smell and heartbeat are all there as well.
How does comfort feeding work?
Friesen-Stoesz’s son Jacob has suffered from chronic ear infections since he was about nine months old, and she found nursing was the most reliable way to comfort him and ease his pain. “It works faster than painkillers,” she says. “And I think that seeking comfort from people is a healthy thing.”
Bickford finds that many mothers who are concerned about nursing their baby for comfort worry this will spoil the baby and make him even more demanding as he grows up. She reassures the parents she talks to that this isn’t a concern. “Research shows that babies who are held a lot and frequently nursed actually go on to be outgoing and adventurous children. By responding to babies’ needs quickly, consistently and with love, we teach them that the world is a safe and wonderful place.”
Knowing it’s OK to nurse for comfort makes breastfeeding easier, adds Friesen-Stoesz. “It’s too hard to try to figure out if this feeding is for food or for comfort or because he’s tired.” Whatever his reason for wanting to come back to the breast, it’s fine to just go ahead and nurse.
When to worry about frequent breastfeeding
Bickford says that comfort nursing and frequent breastfeeding are healthy and normal, but if your baby is spending a great deal of time at the breast, rarely seems content or satisfied after a feeding, and is not gaining weight appropriately, this may be a signal that something isn’t quite right.
“It may be a baby is having difficulty getting enough milk,” says Bickford. If this sounds like your baby, a lactation consultant can help to identify and fix the problem.