We all know the benefits of breastfeeding so many of us have endured struggles, pain, shame, and eventually pushed ourselves beyond our limits to provide what we think is best for our babies.
What specifically is it that has the most benefit for babies in regards to breastfeeding? Researchers have been studying this more lately. Most of us have assumed that that actual substances in the milk helps improve brain development. However, there is a nurturing aspect too.
Others have wondered if the mother-child bond facilitated by breastfeeding helps infants’ development. While these factors may be at play, one particular study showed that breastfeeding was associated with two important parenting practices: (1) responding to children’s emotional cues, and (2) reading to children as early as 9 months of age.
Using a national sample of 7,500 mothers and their children from birth to age five, this study showed that mothers who breastfed were more likely to practice these crucial parenting skills. These parenting practices, in turn, were associated with greater reading readiness by age 4.
I find these types of studies fascinating because they accomplish what social science research is all about—uncovering the underlying explanations for the “attention-grabbing” headlines we often see in the media. While I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, it seems that mothers who do not breastfeed are often chastised in the media or public due, in part, to all the research showing the developmental benefits.
Until now, it was assumed that the benefits of breastfeeding were delivered through the milk itself, but this research shows that it is not just about the milk. In other words, if non-breastfeeding mothers can be responsive and exercise these positive parenting strategies, many of the same benefits can be passed along to their children as well.
In other words, one of the best things for our babies, in addition to breast milk, is a fully present, healthy mama.
I came to this realization after much struggle with breastfeeding myself. My first son had difficulty latching. We consulted lactation consultants, hospital staff, etc. but I realized it would probably just take time for him to learn. After about six weeks of nursing every two hours, I hit a physical and psychological wall. I knew I had to get some sort of break, so I asked my husband to take one feeding per night using formula. I had tried pumping but it took multiple sessions to get enough to fill a bottle. We persisted and he ended up doing well with a combination of nursing and formula for the remainder of his infancy.
With my second son I was prepared for the challenges at least, but still hoped that more experience would make it easier. It was not easier, but I did have the hindsight to know that it would all work out okay in the end. With him I endured six solid weeks of piercing pain when he latched and assorted other problems. But, just as I had imagined, it all worked out okay in the end. Once we both got the hang of nursing, he was a champ and did not wean until he was almost two years old.
From a developmental point of view, we know that the mother-baby bond is developed slowly, over the course of months in a subtle, beautiful fashion that involves the close observation of the mother reading the signals of her baby as he/she adapts to the world.
Breastfeeding is a natural, beautiful part of motherhood, but it can also be a struggle. As with many parts of motherhood, I've come to realize that the struggle is also what can add to the beauty. If I had not had these challenges, I might not appreciate so much the joy of seeing my babies grow strong and healthy.
Now, 3 years later, I struggle with toddler tantrums but somewhere down the road I know I will come to appreciate how those struggles led my son to gain maturity and self-control. Again, even in the struggle there can be the beauty of a child developing.
Good, responsive parenting can reveal itself in variety of ways, most of which center on the relationship with each unique child. Feeding your baby is a lovely part of that relationship, but it is not the only piece. The pieces are woven together over years of feeding, bathing, reading, listening and lots and lots of patience.