Feeding and Attachment

While the importance of what we feed our children cannot be underestimated, from an attachment point of view, it is how we feed them that is most important.

Each feeding is just a moment that can be easily overlooked, but these moments of loving interaction string together to form the basis of a lifetime of security.

Too often, the choice about what and how to feed a baby centres upon nutrition. Discussions about breast milk, formula, starting solids and schedules all seem to focus upon meeting a child’s physical needs. Is he getting enough? Is this the best substance for her growing body? Is he gaining weight? Does she feed too often? While the importance of what we feed our children cannot be underestimated, from an attachment point of view, it is how we feed them that is most important.

From both a physiological and psychological perspective, breastfeeding is the optimal choice for feeding babies. Most everyone knows that breast milk is the ‘best food’ for baby – even the formula companies tell you that. But why is it the best choice for babies’ emotional needs? What makes breastfeeding so special? And, if you choose not to breastfeed, can these special qualities be mirrored in a formula feeding relationship?

Breastfeeding sets up a mother and baby for optimal bonding and attuned communication. In an optimal breastfeeding relationship, mother and baby ‘talk’ to each other in a near-constant fashion. Because a newborn baby needs to feed often and around the clock, mother and baby stay in close contact. Mother learns her baby’s cues and signs for hunger, as well as other needs for closeness that are often met through the breastfeeding experience. By feeding on demand, a mother not only establishes an adequate milk supply but also teaches her baby that she will sensitively and effectively respond to fluctuating needs, always aware of her baby’s signals. Through that awareness she sets the stage for her baby’s ability to feel fully nurtured and secure. Over time, this intense need will lessen as her baby moves toward greater and greater independence, but the foundation of understanding and communication between mother and child will remain.

Breastfeeding promotes eye contact, which is associated with a mutually reinforcing cycle of pleasurable hormones that flow between mother and baby. The skin-to-skin contact, inherent in a breastfeeding experience, also induces “love hormones” in both mother and baby. Oxytocin, a peptide hormone important for the creation of positive emotion and healthy social connections, is one such substance. Oxytocin inhibits the negative impact of stress and increases the healing rate of wounds. It is essential for bonding and feeling good in relationships.

Recent research also indicates that breastfeeding helps protect babies from the negative effects of post-natal depression. It appears that the emotional and physiological experience of being breastfed alleviates some of the impact of living with a depressed mother. Add to that a mother who gets the advantage of relaxing breastfeeding hormones and it is clear that breastfeeding can benefit many mother-baby pairs who might have difficulty connecting to each other.

But what if you don’t want to breastfeed? Or tried but were not able to continue? Does that mean that you and your baby cannot participate in this marvellous bonding ritual that occurs around feeding? Absolutely not.

Regardless of your feeding method, it is important to remember that feeding, especially for a young baby, is more than just intake of nutrition. This is one of baby’s first experiences of being cared for and that care extends beyond hunger. How a baby is held, looked at, spoken to… all these things contribute to the attachment relationship and they are all present in feeding situations.

A mother who cannot or prefers not to breastfeed can nonetheless evoke the warmth and responsiveness implicit in healthy breastfeeding. This involves the following:

  • Establish yourself as the primary feeder. Do not assume that just because a baby is taking a bottle that ‘anyone’ can feed her. Babies need nurturance and reassurance from their primary caregiver and consistent feeding is one way to communicate this.
  • Look at your baby while feeding. She will feel the acknowledgement and you will, too.
  • Feed your baby with skin-to-skin contact when possible. Allowing your baby to smell your skin – and vice versa – activates the basic attachment system and provides an opportunity for oxytocin to rise.
  • Feed your baby ‘on demand’, not on a schedule. Responding to his signals of need will fortify his sense of well-being and strengthen his trust in you.
  • Be aware of potential distress that can occur when a baby must wait for a feed due to the time required for formula heating or preparation. If possible, hold your baby during this time and provide cuddles and comfort.

Carrying your baby, comforting touch, and infant massage are also ways of increasing the flow of hormones like oxytocin and deepening the parent-baby bond. These strategies are available to all families, regardless of feeding method.

It is in the everyday relationship experiences that an attachment is formed. Via these common and repeated interactions, babies’ brains are developed and patterns of relating are set into motion. Feeding is an everyday experience that shapes our children in this way. Each feeding is just a moment that can be easily overlooked, but these moments of loving interaction string together to form the basis of a lifetime of security.

Reference/Used with Permission from Centre for Attachment

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