Comfort nursing or non-nutritive sucking is still a very controversial topic among parents and doctors alike, despite the growing awareness surrounding the benefits of breastfeeding in recent years.
Nursing for comfort refers to when the baby sucks on the mother’s breast not out of hunger but rather to soothe himself or to fall asleep – sounds innocent enough, right?
Well, it turns out that this kind of nursing comes in for plenty of criticism – from people who say that it will spoil the baby to those who claim that it will make it almost impossible to wean the child when he’s older.
But this criticism isn’t supported by scientific research or the experiences of parents.
In fact, nursing for comfort comes with plenty of benefits that any new mom should know about!
For example, it can help your little one fall asleep faster or calm him down when he’s upset.
Not to mention that it fosters a strong bond between you and your child and helps him feel secure, leading to fewer anxieties later on in life.
Read on to get all the details on how nursing for comfort and breastfeeding baby to sleep is beneficial not just for your baby, but for your entire family!
Should I Comfort Nurse My Baby?
In today’s society, the topic of breastfeeding can quickly go from a casual conversation to a hot debate in a matter of minutes!
How long or how often a baby should nurse are all questions that have different answers, depending on who you ask, and it’s not uncommon to get wildly different opinions from moms with different parenting styles.
Breastfeeding for comfort is also referred to as non-nutritive sucking and happens when the baby nurses not because he is hungry, but because he needs comfort, or feels tired and fussy.
If the idea of comfort nursing sounds strange, I would like to remind you that the act of breastfeeding not only helps the baby get all the nutrition they need to grow and develop, but it’s also extremely soothing.
The skin-to-skin contact between a breastfeeding mother and her little one, coupled with the warmth and care the baby feels while suckling, is a bonding experience for both mom and baby.
This is why many new moms opt to comfort nurse their little one – to soothe him when he is upset or to help him fall asleep.
Remember that you’re not doing anything new or unnatural by comfort nursing your baby, nor are you somehow nurturing a bad habit.
Most babies either use a pacifier or suck on their own thumb for comfort, so by offering your breast you’re not doing anything different or out of the ordinary.
In fact, there are many places around the world where this type of nursing is even expected.
For example, there is a tribe in Africa called the Aka where breastfeeding babies nurse as many as four times in the space of an hour.
In addition, they spend most of the day being carried by their mother so that they can nurse as often as they wish.
Of course, the father or other family members step in, as well, but during the first months of the baby’s life, he is mostly by his mother’s side so that breastfeeding is easy for the new mother and the baby.
Some people might respond to this by pointing out that the lifestyle of a tribe in Africa and the average family in the United States is very different and that comparing the two doesn’t make a lot of sense.
After all, most new moms in the US have full-time jobs where they are expected to be out of the home for at least 40 hours a week – so taking the baby to work with them is a bit of a long shot.
Not to mention that western societies generally value independence and this transfers over to infants, too, so many people believe that young babies should be taught to not overly rely on their parents.
In addition, new parents in the west usually live on their own, away from their immediate family.
Therefore, they don’t have anyone who can jump in and help them with their other day-to-day activities that prevent them from keeping the baby by their side most of the time.
On the other hand, traditional societies like the Aka make this possible.
Here’s the deal though – you don’t have to feel like you need to follow every model to a T.
In fact, it’s entirely possible for you to nurse on demand, for example, or breastfeed for comfort, and still make it work for your lifestyle.
Sure, when the baby’s needs are front and center of your life, it’s unrealistic to expect that you will be able to live the life you had before the baby’s arrival.
Plus, parents who tend to be against comfort feedings believe (usually subconsciously) that the baby should adapt to the parents’ lifestyle as quickly as possible.
For example, some parents believe that a baby should learn how to fall asleep on his own (without being nursed to sleep), should take to bottle feedings right away, and wake up as little as possible during the night.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either approach – both methods have produced babies that grew into stable and happy adults!
And we shouldn’t forget that the baby stage is only a small part of childhood, and there are many other factors that come into play later on and have an effect on the person we grow up to be.
Still, it’s important for you to know that nursing for comfort is entirely natural and normal and you won’t be causing any harm to your little one.
Do what feels good and works for you and you can’t go wrong!
The Benefits Of Comfort Nursing
As any breastfeeding mom will tell you, breastfeeding for comfort, and not just to get your baby’s belly full, sometimes seems like a magical cure-all potion for all your baby’s needs.
If you don’t believe me, just take a look at all of these benefits that nursing for comfort brings!
1. It helps the baby sleep
One of the biggest parenting challenges is sleep!
Whether it’s getting the baby to fall asleep or to stay asleep, sleepless nights are a staple of every new parent’s life.
It turns out that Mother Nature already saw this coming and made it super easy for babies to fall asleep while nursing! This is not a myth, either, but it’s supported by science.
An important ingredient of breast milk is tryptophan, an amino acid that creates melatonin, which is a hormone that is crucial for sleep.
So when your little one is breastfeeding, he is ingesting this amino acid that helps him doze off!
Don’t worry that your baby won’t be able to fall asleep without nursing when he gets older – sooner or later he will learn how to fall asleep on his own.
And you shouldn’t let your fear of what will happen in a year or two control how you put your baby to sleep now!
2. It soothes an upset baby or toddler
When we talk about breastfeeding, we always mention how healthy it is for both mom and baby.
Breast milk contains all the ingredients a baby needs and it’s readily available!
Plus, it’s tailor-made for the baby’s sensitive digestive system and causes less reflux and gassiness.
Obviously, we put the emphasis on the nutritional value of breast milk so that expectant moms can see the importance of breastfeeding and give it a try before buying baby formula.
But breastfeeding is also extremely calming to both babies and toddlers, and plenty of moms who practice nursing for comfort have discovered it’s the perfect cure to a grumpy tot or a fussy baby!
Honestly, is there anything better than knowing you can easily soothe your little one no matter where you are?
3. You will have a better milk supply
For moms who want to breastfeed, having a low milk supply can be incredibly discouraging and there are numerous women who switch from breast milk to formula because their milk production simply can’t keep up.
In addition, women rely on taking supplements or drinking tea for breastfeeding just to boost their milk supply.
But allowing your little one to stay attached to your breast even after the active part of the feeding is done, also known as flutter sucking, can stimulate another let-down reflex which will fully drain your breasts and help you make more breast milk for your little one.
So, don’t rush to finish your nursing session as soon as you notice that flutter sucking has started but instead let the baby suckle away for as long as possible, especially if you have low milk production.
4. It creates a strong attachment bond between mom and baby
The bond between a mom and her baby is incomparable, no matter if the baby is breastfed, bottle-fed, or formula-fed.
However, when a baby is upset or hurting and the mom soothes him by offering her breast, it helps the baby understand that his mom is a source of comfort and safety.
When the baby’s needs are being met in this way, it sets the stage for a healthy and secure attachment between mom and baby because the baby receives consistent care and affection from his parents.
Such conclusions aren’t just opinions of baby experts, though, there has even been research that confirms how beneficial breastfeeding is when it comes to attachment.
Karleen D. Gribble, Ph.D., wrote about this topic in her article “Mental health, attachment and breastfeeding: implications for adopted children and their mothers”.
Gribble noticed how adopted kids who were breastfed were able to relax and calm down during the process, and even found relief from pain.
In addition, nursing helped in lowering stress in adopted kids and aided them in falling asleep.
Finally, breastfeeding helped the mom and adopted child connect, and the child became more affectionate and wanted to cuddle with his mom.
5. It provides pain relief
Listening to your baby cry in pain is difficult for any parent, and you are willing to do anything to make his pain go away.
Thankfully, nursing for comfort can provide relief in these cases, too, so if your little one is hurting, you can rest assured that comfort sucking will make him feel better.
Again, this is not just a matter of opinion or the experience of a small group of moms.
Scientists have researched the relationship between breastfeeding and pain relief and have come up with some very positive results!
A study published in 2011, “Nonnutritive Sucking and Oral Sucrose Relieve Neonatal Pain During Intramuscular Injection of Hepatitis Vaccine” by Jen-Jiuan Liaw et al, found that comfort sucking is an effective method of providing pain relief when a baby receives a vaccine.
The Main Arguments Against Comfort Nursing
Whether it’s online or in the real world, you’re bound to come across people who have various arguments against breastfeeding for comfort.
Unfortunately, most of these arguments are based on opinions rather than facts.
1. It will turn the mom into a human pacifier
Some people might say that comfort nursing turns the mom into a human pacifier and forces her to be available to her baby 24/7, which limits her own independence.
Not to mention that waking up so many times in the middle of the night to breastfeed makes it very difficult to function normally the next day.
From my experience, I can say that moms know how to make it work – whether they work in an office or stay at home with their little one.
Some moms use a breast pump when they go back to work and the baby is bottle-fed during the day and breastfed once mom comes home.
Don’t feel like you should follow a specific set of rules just because so and so told you that it’s the right thing to do. It’s up to you to find what works best for your little family!
Besides, our bodies adjust really quickly to this new way of living and all babies disrupt our sleep schedule, whether they are breastfed or not.
That’s just how babies are!
What’s more, the decision of when to wean the baby from the breast is up to the mom alone, and once she decides to stop nursing, nothing or no one should prevent her from doing so.
2. You will spoil your baby
But one of the most commonly heard arguments against comfort sucking is that it will somehow spoil the baby.
The argument goes that holding the baby too much, allowing him to nurse or simply suckle whenever he needs, creates a very demanding breastfed baby.
The truth is, both younger and older babies need affection and care from their parents.
Making the baby feel safe and loved by holding and cuddling with him is also a great way to create a secure bond between the parents and the baby.
It’s virtually impossible to spoil your child by holding him too much as a baby, and this view tends to ignore what spoiling a child actually entails.
Kids become spoiled when they are older and their parents make no attempt to enforce their rules and boundaries or punish bad behavior.
What’s more, most kids get spoiled later on in life, when parents don’t assign them chores to do around the house or teach them to share and be generous with other people.
Not to mention that an infant has needs, rather than wants, so spoiling him through affection and on demand feeding is pretty hard to do.
So, the next time someone tells you that nursing for comfort will spoil your baby, know that they’re probably coming from a more “old school” way of parenting where teaching a child independence from birth was the top priority.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time for you to teach your munchkin how to do things on his own in the years to come!
3. The baby will never learn how to sleep on his own
One of the biggest benefits of comfort feedings is getting the baby to sleep!
But there are also people who say that the best method of getting a baby to doze off is the so-called cry it out method.
Proponents of this method say that this teaches the baby to self soothe and learn how to fall asleep on his own, without a parent present.
The truth is that the cry it out method (also known as the extinction method) is not for everyone.
Since it involves the parents not responding to the baby’s cries (even if the crying goes as long as 45 minutes) it can be incredibly hard to listen to and not intervene.
After all, a baby can only communicate his needs through crying and he doesn’t understand that his parents haven’t abandoned him.
So, for some parents, comfort nursing is a great way to get the baby sleepy enough (or to fall asleep) to place him in his crib without a big fuss.
Some moms also use a sling to carry their baby around the house while he’s sleeping.
This makes nursing to sleep much easier since you’re not tied to sitting in a rocking chair waiting for the baby to fall asleep.
While some people say that using comfort sucking will cause the baby to never learn how to fall asleep on his own, many babies have reached this point on their own simply because they were developmentally ready to do so.
Of course, this will not happen in the earliest months of their lives, but as they approach their first birthday, you might begin to see signs that they are ready to fall asleep without sucking on breast milk.
Naturally, this method is not for everyone and not every mom has the time for this routine every night.
But you should know that if you’re not comfortable with letting your munchkin cry it out, you shouldn’t force yourself to do it.
Nursing your baby to sleep won’t cause any harm to your baby and he will learn how to fall asleep on his own in due course.
4. Nursing for comfort will make it near impossible to wean
There is a common opinion that using nursing as a way to help a baby or toddler soothe themselves will make it very hard to wean them from the breast since they’re so attached to it.
In reality, the weaning process looks different for everyone and it’s hard to predict whether it will go smoothly or if you’ll experience a couple of bumps in the road – that’s up to each individual family.
If you decide to breastfeed into the toddler years, there’s no way of knowing whether you will actually have to wean strategically or whether at some point your tot will simply decide he doesn’t want to breastfeed anymore.
Apart from that, there are certain developmental milestones during which babies and toddlers find breastfeeding really comforting, such as teething.
Trying to get the baby weaned off during this stage can be really difficult, so it’s best to wait until he feels better.
Also, if you’re currently experiencing a major change, such as moving house, starting daycare, or are experiencing anything that is making your everyday life a little strange for your child, try not to wean until enough time has passed.
Breastfeeding is a comforting and familiar activity, so suddenly taking it out of the equation could really upset your little one.
In any case, nursing for comfort doesn’t have to make the weaning process more difficult and you will be following the same strategies as the moms who didn’t comfort nurse.
No need to worry – sooner or later, your child will be fully weaned and nursing for comfort won’t make this process any more or less difficult than usual.
5. What will you do when the baby starts daycare?
The daycare transition can be a challenge for many parents, not only because being away from his parents can be very upsetting for the baby but also because he can’t nurse to settle in for a nap or calm down.
What might or might not happen at daycare shouldn’t prevent you from trying out nursing for comfort.
Babies can adapt to being in different environments without their parents (and many have done so without a fuss) so don’t panic!
Daycare workers are trained to deal with all sorts of babies and their developmental milestones, and they know what to do if they’re dealing with a baby who is missing his mommy’s breast.
Only if all other strategies fail will they come to you to find a common solution for your little one’s nursing needs.
This might include the baby having a blanket or a toy that smells like mom to hold onto during the day (and especially for naptime) or using a pacifier.
Some babies also show an immediate desire to nurse after being picked up from daycare – this is normal and shows that your little one is still getting used to this new experience, so he needs to be comforted by nursing.
To sum up, there’s no need for you to fear daycare and automatically think it will be a failure – trust me, your baby can handle it!
When To Talk To A Pediatrician About Comfort Nursing
Feeding your baby on demand and allowing him to use breastfeeding as a way to comfort himself is perfectly fine – it’s sometimes even recommended!
However, there are certain signals to look out for in your baby’s feeding patterns and growth that can indicate a bigger problem.
For instance, if your baby is feeding often but doesn’t seem to gain weight then you should talk to a doctor to get to the root of the problem.
Your little one might not have a good latch, so you could even visit a lactation consultant who will be able to advise you on how to get your baby to latch deeper.
Should I Breastfeed On A Schedule?
First off, I should say that if you want to breastfeed your baby on a schedule, that comfort nursing won’t be possible since you will be following a strict set of times for when to feed your little one.
Scheduled breastfeeding also focuses on the nutritional aspect of nursing, so comfort feedings aren’t factored into the schedule.
Because every baby is unique, most experts recommend not to breastfeed on a schedule but to do so on demand.
Sometimes a baby might be going through a growth spurt and ask to nurse more often, and sticking to a schedule, in this case, can be harmful.
Some moms worry that they might not know whether their baby is getting enough milk during feedings, so nursing on demand will make sure your baby gets all the nutrition he needs.
Apart from that, new parents are often concerned that they won’t know when the baby is hungry, making a nursing schedule quite attractive.
However, babies have a number of easily recognizable signs that will let you know loud and clear that they are hungry, such as:
- becoming restless;
- moving the head from one side to the other;
- moving their hands towards the mouth.
Plus, nursing on demand makes sure that your milk supply stays high and lowers your risk of experiencing breast engorgement, for example.
And you will be able to incorporate comfort feedings at any time, whether to help your little one fall asleep or soothe him when he is sick.
Whether you’re breastfeeding or formula-feeding your munchkin, one thing is clear – people are going to have a lot of opinions about it.
Breastfeeding can become an especially contentious debate because everyone has their own idea of how it should be done and for how long.
If you decide to breastfeed your little one, you are going to get lots of contradictory advice, especially from older family members who might be used to a more traditional style of parenting.
They might say that by comfort nursing you’re spoiling your baby or making him too dependent on you.
The truth is, these are all just opinions. Spoiling a child entails much more than simple nursing habits and responding to his needs certainly won’t have a bad impact on his development – quite the contrary!
Nursing for comfort is done by women all over the world and if you decide that it’s right for you, then you shouldn’t feel ashamed of your decision.
You are simply doing what feels best for your baby, and there’s nothing wrong with trusting your motherly instincts!
In the grand scheme of things, the breastfeeding period is only a small part of a human’s life, so enjoy it with your little one!
- “Mental health, attachment and breastfeeding: Implications for adopted children and their mothers” by Karleen D. Gribble, PhD, published in the International Breastfeeding Journal in February 2006.
- “Nonnutritive sucking and oral sucrose relieve neonatal pain during intramuscular injection of hepatitis vaccine” by Jen-Jiuan Liaw, Wen-Ping Zeng, Luke Yang, Yeong-Seng Yuh, Ti Yin, and Meei-Horng Yang, published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management in December 2011.
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