Separating “Nursing” from “Breast-feeding”

There is a common misconception that nursing is another way of saying breastfeeding, and while it is true that it is almost impossible to breastfeed without nursing, it is also possible to nurse and bottle feed. In fact, it is essential to your baby’s health and development.

Here’s the truth. To nurse a baby means to tend to her needs, and it has come to be specifically associated with feeding. Women who breastfeed their babies are, by necessity, in close contact to their infant during feedings. There is, by necessity skin-to-skin contact, and most often there is also eye contact and interaction. Some mothers sing to their babies during feedings, talk to them, read to them. Many babies will reach for their mother’s face, or hand and play while feeding. What goes on during that interaction?

The obvious is the actual milk that is being given to the baby, which I don’t have to sell you on. It is obvious that mother’s milk is the perfect food for a human baby, and that fact has been discussed and proven ad infinitum, so I’m not going to go into it here. (But if you’d like an absolutely excellent read about that, I highly recommend Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding. Totally wonderful book, very clear and easy to read.) And the decision to use artificial milk or to supplement with artificial milk lies solely with each individual family and their individual needs. Baby formula is not breast milk, but it provides all the nutrients your baby needs. 

But here’s the not so obvious information about nursing. That physical interaction that goes on between a baby and his mother during feeding is directly related to the health and development of the baby, as well as the health of the mother.

Let’s start with mom. When you are producing breastmilk for your baby, your body secretes specific hormones for that purpose, oxytocin, prolactin, endorphins are the main ones. These hormones, aside from directing the production of milk, also provide other benefits: stress relief, mothering instinct, and pain relief to name a few. So now my bottlefeeding readers are going, “Ok, so what does this have to do with me?” The thing is, that if, for whatever reason, you have chosen not to breast feed – or even if you are pumping and giving bottles of breastmilk, your body will produce these hormones when you “nurse” your baby. That is to say, when you hold your baby in your arms during feeding, making eye contact, talking and singing to your baby. That is what nursing is. And you can do it with a bottle too, if you choose to. When you nurse your baby, your body will produce the same hormones as if you were actually breastfeeding, albeit in smaller amounts. Even fathers or other care givers will experience the “nursing high” and reap all the benefits!

Now let’s talk about your little one. When a baby nurses, her body also produces oxytocin, also known as the hormone of love and connection. And guess what, your baby will get his oxytocin fix from being close to you while he’s eating, even if he’s not actually suckling at your breast.

Why am I telling you this? Unfortunately, in most of North America and a lot of the developed world, breastfeeding is still not the cultural norm. Many of today’s new mothers are children or grandchildren of women who were convinced that breastmilk was substandard to factory-produced “scientifically proven” baby milk. That attitude is hard to shake. One of the major factors in successful breastfeeding is having a lot of support, so it is not surprising that so many women in our generation have trouble breastfeeding when our own mothers and grandmothers are looking at us if not disdainfully, the with uncertainty and concern for the well-being of our baby!

Another huge factor in establishing a healthy breastfeeding relationship is birth and those critical first hours post-partum. With the birth system in most of the world being as broken as it is, again, we are not left to wonder why so many women have trouble getting that most crucial breastfeeding relationship off to a good start. And while almost every obstacle can be overcome, to do so requires the support and education that is only recently becoming available through mother-friendly birth campaigns, books and birth and post-partum doulas.

Another important thing to state here is that sometimes, the decision to bottle feed cannot be undone. Meaning that even a woman who made the decision to use artificial baby milk under duress, or due to circumstances beyond her control or knowledge, may not be able to go back to breastfeeding even if she wants to. There are also circumstances where a baby cannot breastfeed due to complications like cleft palate or premature birth. And mothers who are bottle feeding, even if they are giving exclusively breastmilk, can feel very frustrated by the loss of “nursing.”

So I’m here to tell you that every mother (and every father, and every daycare worker, and every babysitter) can nurse their baby. Every single one of you. When you choose to hold your baby when you feed her, make eye contact with her, caress her arms, talk to her or sing to her – you are nursing your baby.

The only mistake you can make with a bottle is routinely putting your baby down and propping up the bottle. Those of you who know me know that I don’t make blanket statements, I am very aware of the significance of the choices we all make, and the individual needs and concerns of each person. So I am going to be very clear here: “Nursing” your baby is essential to his development! So grab your breasts, or grab your bottles, but whatever you do, nurse your baby!

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