When we become mothers, we are immediately bestowed with two emotions in the extreme: unconditional love for our newborns and guilt. While no parent is perfect and we all make mistakes, there is one particular concern new mothers tend to feel very guilty about: the comfort feed. I am often asked by new mothers if it’s ok that their newborns fall asleep while they are breastfeeding. They also want to know if it’s ok to let the baby nurse if he is clearly just doing it for comfort and not eating.
What is comfort feeding? There are two different kinds of sucks: nutritive and non-nutritive. Nutritive sucking takes place at the beginning of the feed after the baby has stimulated the let-down and the milk is flowing. Large jaw movements are seen as the baby’s tongue moves backward creating negative pressure in the baby’s mouth which draws the milk out of the mother’s breast. Non-nutritive sucking usually occurs toward the end of the feed and usually only the area surrounding the baby’s mouth is moving, just like one would see when a baby sucks on a pacifier. At this point the baby’s stomach is full and the infant is more interested in just being with mom than eating from mom. It is this quiet, intimate time that has mothers feeling concerned and guilty when they should be feeling the exact opposite: relaxed and close to their baby.
During the comfort portion of a feed, the mom is bonding with her baby. In our busy culture, especially if this is not a first child, this may be the only time during the day when a mom and baby can solely focus on one another. It is a precious time to be treasured. Breastfeeding is more than just a transfer of nutrients from mother to baby. It’s a complete dining experience that includes eating and socializing, and for a little one all that excitement may make them sleepy. Think of it like a date with your baby- just don’t take it personally when they fall asleep at the end!
In addition to the emotional bonding, there is increasing research that shows that non-nutritive sucking also has health benefits for the baby. For babies with reflux non-nutritive sucking helps promote gastric emptying and can help reduce reflux. Breastfeeding also calms a child. Studies seem to indicate that this type of sucking decreases a baby’s heart rate and allows him to relax. It can even help your child handle stress better when not breastfeeding (Beijers et al, 2013). Sucking releases the hormones cholecystokinin and oxytocin in both mother and baby which results in a sleepy feeling. In addition, breastmilk also contains sleep-inducing hormones, amino acids, and nucleotides, whose concentrations are higher during the night and may actually help babies establish their own circadian rhythms (Sánchez et al, 2009, Cohen et al, 2012).
So for the moms out there who are afraid of spoiling their babies or feel like they are harming their babies by being their human pacifier, there’s nothing to feel guilty about! You are actually giving your baby everything they need to thrive both physically and emotionally. And if it’s enjoyable for you and your baby, carry on-literally! Research has shown that the more time you spend bonding with your little one, the more independent they will be later on in life. And while it may seem like a never ending task now, in a few years it will be all but a precious memory.