Nursing: It’s More than Breastfeeding and Every Mother Can Do It


Breastfeeding isn’t only about providing mother’s milk. While seldom recognized in literature, doctors’ advice or common conversation, there’s a whole lot more to breastfeeding than nutrition and immunity, and some of this can be achieved during bottlefeeding as well.

by Linda Folden Palmer, D.C.

Breastfeeding has taken quite a bashing over the last century. In order to rebuild acceptance of breastfeeding, breastfeeding advocates have focused on the importance its nutritive and immune support roles. But breastfeeding is designed to be much more than just providing food — it is a time for nursing, a time for comfort and nurturing. This is a time for studying and memorizing each other’s faces, for speaking or singing to your baby and developing her trust and nonverbal communication.

Babies clearly seek nursing in order to ease the pain of a bump or illness, to relieve stress or to regain security after being frightened. It’s obviously effective. And whenever allowed, babies usually engage in comfort nursing long after nutrition needs have been satiated, deepening the soothing, bonding and educational relationship between mother and child.

Not all of these benefits are exclusive to breastfeeding mothers and babies. Bottlefeeding mothers can achieve many of these benefits, as well. It’s possible to “nurse” your baby, whether at bottle or at breast.

“Nursing” is more than breastfeeding
In your arms or snuggled alongside you, your baby is nurtured by the snuggly warmth of your body and comforted by your familiar scent (pheromones). He hears the beat of your heart and the sound of your voice. His neurons and hormones program him to desire and flourish in this environment — a means of ensuring his protection, survival and optimal development. And when allowed, your baby’s powerful imprint on your pheromonal messages is second only to his programmed need and yearning for sucking.

Science has demonstrated how a baby’s optimal development occurs through his neurological and hormonal responses to these planned inputs. Providing these stimuli for your baby means providing the advantages, as well.

Comfort nursing
Babies often engage in comfort nursing (also known as non-nutritive sucking) well beyond their need for taking in milk for nourishment. Given the opportunity, most babies will comfort nurse – and for baby’s benefit, it’s a good thing. Comfort nursing satiates your baby’s needs for soothing, familiarity and educational parent-child exchanges. Your baby needs to nurse for security, positive hormonal releases, bonding and company.

The importance of sucking to a baby’s comfort and well being is well demonstrated. In a Chicago sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) study, bottle-fed infants who enjoyed the added use of a pacifier (which makes up for comfort nursing time) had only one-third the rate of SIDS as those who did not use pacifiers, and those who breastfed had only one-fifth the rate of SIDS.

EEG studies of babies’ brains while sucking at the breast demonstrate increased activity in areas of the brain that govern alertness and attention as well as in areas that control the cycle of sleeping and waking. Bottle-feeding produces similar but smaller changes in brain patterns.

Many babies who are fed on strict schedules or quickly removed from the breast or bottle as soon as active feeding is done will seek a thumb or finger to suck on or take to a pacifier. This demonstrates their strong inborn requirement for more comfort sucking. Allow your baby to continue to breastfeed as long as she wishes for comfort. Bottlefeeding parents can offer comfort nursing by holding their babies and allowing them to continue sucking on a bottle or pacifier.

Sucking relieves pain and soothes babies
Researchers have shown that breastfeeding reduces pain for babies. A recent assessment measured a great reduction in babies’ pain during medical procedures if they breastfed during the procedure. Some reduction in pain was demonstrated with pacifier sucking, but simply holding a baby in his mother’s arms did not provide measurable relief.

Clearly, babies are meant to return to their mothers after a bump or to demand frequent nursing when ill. When your baby is sick, the soothing qualities of being held and sucking is both healing and helps relieve symptoms for your infant. Nursing keeps baby close to you so you can best monitor your baby’s status. Quick, safe, and easy, nursing your baby (holding her and allowing her to suck) is meant to soothe the physical pains of babyhood.

Sucking promotes sleep
Another powerful benefit of breastfeeding (and sucking) is its promotion of sleep in baby and in a sleepy mommy. The peace and quiet allow dad to sleep, too.

Some parenting “experts” recommend withholding from your baby all the comforts that would normally induce sleep, including pacifiers, rocking and allowing him to fall asleep at the breast or bottle. These same “experts” then have the opportunity to teach tough-love tactics, which attempt to coerce your perplexed, forsaken baby to sleep without any of his natural tools.

All the crying that ensues produces stress hormone releases in your baby, discouraging sleep until sheer exhaustion takes over. And after all is said and done, you are left to try to get to sleep with your own stress hormones surging through your bloodstream, as well.

The reality is that babies come with a simple and wonderful program in place for falling asleep: breastfeeding. A mother’s body passes comforting hormones into her own body and into her baby’s milk in response to the suckling. Babies release their own comforting hormones, as well, during parental contact and especially when sucking. Together, the warmth, security, full tummy, tiredness from sucking effort and comforting hormones induce sleep naturally.

Nursing your baby to sleep, whether at the breast or the bottle, is a great way to achieve these effects.

The benefits of skin-to-skin contact
Many studies demonstrate the benefits of skin-to-skin contact in babies. One measurable benefit of such contact is increased oxytocin releases in both you and your infant. Regular, high oxytocin levels not only comfort you and your baby but they serve to increase your sense of satisfaction with motherhood.

Higher levels of oxytocin, especially when created through frequent or prolonged body contact, encourage other kinds of positive hormonal interactions to occur as well. These provide physical rewards to protect the desires for maintaining close family relationships.

Long-term benefits of regularly high oxytocin levels include a reduction in heart disease risk factors for you and your baby. Your child may enjoy lower blood pressure and healthier arteries throughout his life as a result. Furthermore, regular high oxytocin actually reduces the severity of your child’s lifelong reactions to stress.

Preemies are the most often studied in terms of skin-to-skin contact, since they are the most accessible to observe during their stays in neonatal intensive care units, and measurable results are often quite pronounced in this most vulnerable age group. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that preemies are the only babies who benefit from skin-to-skin contact!

In premature newborns, skin-to-skin contact leads to superior temperature control, lower heart rates and life-saving oxygen regulation. The hospital stays of preemies who receive skin-to-skin contact are much shorter. Milk production in mothers is greatly improved when they share this contact with their preemies, and their attachment and maternal behaviors are enhanced. “Kangaroo care preemies” (those kept close to mother’s skin and breastfed when possible) are found to gain twice as much weight per day as incubator babies.

The benefits are clear: snuggle your baby. Breastfeed frequently; if you bottle feed, don’t prop your baby’s bottle and walk away. Your baby’s health will benefit!

Seeing eye to eye
Feeding time is also designed to encourage your baby’s reception of positive activities such as studying your face, exchanging expressions with you and sharing verbal cues. Not only does this deepen the attachment between the two of you, but much of your baby’s early verbal, emotional and social learning is meant to occur during this focused time.

Cute little ornaments hanging over cribs are meant to provide entertainment as well as practice in focusing on and reaching for objects. Your face peering down at your baby during a feeding offers a much superior form of these same rewards.

Holding, rocking and cuddling
The need for frequent breastfeeding throughout the day and night ensures that babies gets their fill of holding, rocking and cuddling. Natural, on-cue breastfeeding ensures that mothers will take the time with sufficient frequency to provide ample nurturing attention. Bottlefeeding parents can do this, too, by making feeding times cherishable times and remembering to hold their babies frequently throughout the day.

While the analysis didn’t measure breastfeeding, one hospital study compared the responses of newborns to standard and what they call “enhanced” care. Newborns were rocked, cuddled, offered verbal and visual stimulation and allowed to suck on a pacifier as much as they desired. In comparison with infants who received standard hospital care, these babies demonstrated superior temperature regulation and respiratory rates; far fewer heart murmurs were detected, fewer sucking and swallowing difficulties were seen and almost no crying was found.

“Nursing” matters
Lest you think this “nursing” your baby sounds sweet but offers intangible rewards, look again at all the benefits of holding your baby and allowing her to suck at will.

• nourishment
• comfort
• easing of pain and discomfort
• protection during illness
• building of bonding and attachment with         parents
• social development
• inducing sleep
• building of trust in parents
• visual development
• development of communication skills
• building brain organization toward positive stress handling throughout life
• reduced heart disease risk factors
• lowered risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)

Breastfeeding provides full nutrition and amazing immune protection for baby, but that’s only the beginning. Nursing your baby – holding her close, letting her suck at will, and offering skin-to-skin contact frequently throughout the day – provides benefits for both breastfed and bottlefed babies. And what a wonderful beginning it can be!

18 thoughts on “Nursing: It’s More than Breastfeeding and Every Mother Can Do It

  1. Hello, I’m currently studying level 3 extended diploma in children and young people’s workforce. I found this article to be great help for some areas of my work. but currently i have to produce a hypothesis and the hypothesis i have chose is ‘boys are more attached to their mothers than girls’ ? i would love to hear anyone’s views and opinions on the subject as it will help for my research but the main question i wanted to ask was in your opinion do you think if boys are breast fed it will encourage more of a stronger bond?

    • Your work sounds valuable. I have seen a study or two (somewhere) saying that boys are typically breastfed for longer than girls are. I don’t know whether this represents a closer bond at this stage? Mothers appear similarly attached to boys and girls, to me, until the teen years. At this stage, the attachment relationships become different, with girls and with boys. I can’t say one is stronger, over the average, but they are just different. Moms may have more in common with girls, in terms of doing things together, but boys may cling more to their mothers in other ways, while hormonal ebbs and tides can create some divisions and/or closer moments among the females.

    • I breastfeed both of my girls until 17 months old. It only took a few days to wean them from the breast. They were very easy to wean. My oldest was the easiest and she was the most attached to me. My son was the hardest. I had tried multiple times with no success so I gave in. He only nursed at night. Finally, He was 28 months when I found out I was pregnant and had to wean him. It took me a month or more and he threw fits to nurse. They were all ebf.

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  3. My daughter is 9 months old and I’m still hesitant about introducing solids. She’s growing wonderfully and is a healthy and happy baby. Should I introduce solids just for fun or are the benefits of breastfeeding the greatest when no other solids or water are introduced?

    • That’s right: the benefits of breastfeeding are greatest when no other solids are introduced. Water doesn’t exactly interfere but there’s no need for it and it can reduce appetite. If, as you say, your daughter is growing wonderfully and is healthy and happy, then everything is going great. Just follow your instincts and your baby’s leads.

  4. What a beautiful article!!!!!
    My baby girl is 13 months and she still nurses to sleep. The bonding between her and I is amazing, yet I do believe I have to break the habit of her nursing to sleep. I have exhausted after waking up 3 or 4 times during the night to soothe her and nurse for comfort.
    Do you have any tips as to how I can break this habit?
    Thank you.

    • Theoretically, the hormonal releases from nursing should lull you both gently back to sleep. I suppose that it doesn’t work well if she’s not sleeping right at your side and you have to go and get your daughter from a crib. For some it doesn’t even work when together, for some reason. Some assign dad to the nighttime comforting for a little transition period. He can give all the snuggles and bouncing and affection baby can take, but, of course, he’s unable to nurse. Don’t leave him on full duty for too long, but this tactic works for some. If baby is sleeping at your side, then it may help to cover your top up really well so that baby does not smell her milk and supposedly she’ll have fewer urges/thoughts of nursing. Try to soothe her in different ways and make it a long, tedious wait to get the nursers out.

  5. I absolutely love this article! With my 2 older children I mostly bottlefed. Now I have a 2 month old who has been strictly breastfed. The bond between us is so strong! I can see a big difference in breastfeeding. You can tell she feels secure and safe. She hardly ever cries. I have not had one sleepless night since I brought her home. I really wish I breastfed my older 2.

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  7. Do you have a need to take away her natural instinctual behavior? This is how babies are designed. What a lovely way to get through all the little pains and scarinesses of being a helpless baby. How delightful that “nature” has provided such a comfy means for babies to fall asleep. What a lucky little girl she is to have this natural source of comfort. She’s just a little bitty baby right now. Ask this in a couple of years. Don’t worry. She will fall asleep on her own at college.

  8. I’ve been wondering lately if I’m doing this breastfeeding thing right! My daughter is now nine months old and because I work and go to school she has bottles (of breast milk) and baby food during the day. If it were not for the fact that she can’t seem to get to sleep without nursing at night after I pump, she would be completely weaned. I’ve been wondering if I’m just being lazy and if I should start getting her used to sleeping in her own bed but it’s not inconvenient for me or daddy, as she will go to sleep nursing and wake up only once in early morning to nurse again. It seems to be working for all of us and now I feel a little better about it.

    • What a lucky little girl to be able to re-connect with mom at night after mom’s away at work and school. Not to worry… she will fall asleep on her own when she’s in college, and more securely so when you fill her instinctual needs now.

  9. I nurse my baby to sleep because it is what works and seems natural. She is 6 months old now and more and more people keep telling me I should stop nursing her to sleep, that I am creating a sleep crutch. I really don’t want to stop doing it until I have to and hopefully that is when she weens from breastfeeding. This article really helped me and reassured me that I am doing the right thing. Thank you!

    • Hi Tina,
      Nurse as long as you want to! She is your child, do what feels right for you! Unfortunately due to low milk supply that could not be helped after multiple remedies and meetings with a lactation consultant I had to start supplementing my daughter with formula. However I never stopped nursing her (I figured a little breast milk was better than nothing at all!). My daughter is now 13 months old and she still nurses to sleep for naps (not bedtime as it did eventually cause issues. She could only be soothed by me in the middle of the night and it created a very tired mommy & sad daddy who felt like he couldn’t comfort her). Naps however have not been an issue at all! I love this time with her and I firmly believe that my continued comfort nursing has created even more of a deepened bond between the 2 of us. She is a very cuddly, loving, and affectionate baby with us. Friends are always commenting and saying “wow you can really tell how much she loves you!” I am not judging those that don’t or can’t nurse. But in my personal experience I firmly believe that nursing has led to a very deep and wonderful mother daughter bond.

      • Hi there thank you for your very reassuring article :-) my bub is 4 1/2 months old and can only be soothed to sleep by breast , I too have had issues with low supply so I bottle feed to supplement . In his short little life thus far he has been sick so many times and breast feeding has been his means of comfort , however now he won’t settle or sleep without it? How did you change this habit with your daughter ?? :-)

      • I know this is late, but I have a 7 month old who can only be soothed by me at night. My ? is, how did you get her to stop at night???

        • Oh gosh, even our spouses like to be soothed at night. I like to be soothed at night. The best soothing designed for young children is being nursed to sleep. Nothing could be more wonderful. If it works for both of you, there’s no need to pick an age and stop it. Why not use it for a few years? I guarantee it will only make thoughts of bedtime always more special, less scary, more secure, even when nursing to sleep becomes replaced by story time or simply hugs and kisses and well wishes… or looking at favorite posters on dorm room walls and snuggling up in the soft sheets and pillow that mom bought especially for her.

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