Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Mothering Isn't Just About Feeding

The worst sin of breastfeeding advocacy is pushing breastfeeding to the exclusion of all other parenting values and choices. Certainly not all breastfeeding advocates are guilty of this, but sometimes we harp on breastmilk vs. formula to the point that it seems like if you don't breastfeed, there's nothing else you can do to create a strong bond with your baby, give your baby the feelings of emotional and physical security he needs to develop healthy attachments, or prevent your child from becoming an asthmatic, diabetic, obese adult.

So for the rest of this blog post, I will not talk about breastfeeding at all. Instead, let's explore some other choices we can make as parents that can help our children gain some of those benefits even if they've never had a drop of breastmilk.

To be perfectly clear: I don't mean you have to do any or all of these things to achieve the above-stated goals. Indeed, in the interests of full disclosure, I have not done all of these things with my children. You don't even have to do any of these things all of the time!

I tend to think the number one thing your child needs from you is love. If your baby knows he is loved, and is shown love through affection, caring words, and active demonstration, then everything else is really just a matter of preference.


Babywearing is the practice of using a carrier of some kind to keep your baby with you as much of the time as possible. There are many types of babywearing devices, such as slings, wraps, and carriers. The idea of babywearing is that babies need to be held, much as they were in the womb, in order to adjust to the rhythms of your life, regulate breathing and heart rate, feel secure in knowing that you are always quite nearby, and watch you as you go about your day. Babywearing is found all over the world in many different forms. Using a carrier or sling simply frees up your hands so you can keep baby with you and still get things done. The beauty of babywearing, too, is that not only Mom has to wear the baby. Dad and other caregivers can certainly wear the baby on just as easily. You can "wear" your baby as you perform chores around the house, go for a walk, shop (much safer than propping a car seat atop the shopping cart!), hike, even use the toilet (with a little practice...).

Bottle-feed In A Way That Mimics Breastfeeding

One of the reasons breastfeeding (okay, I said I wouldn't mention it; I lied) helps to prevent obesity and associated diseases is that it teaches the baby to regulate his own hunger. When you breastfeed on demand, you teach the child to eat when he's hungry. Because the child can choose when to stop eating, he learns to stop when he's full. The trouble with bottle-feeding (whether it's expressed breastmilk or formula), is that the baby finds it much more difficult to self-regulate. Because of the effort, time, and money involved in preparing a bottle, we as parents (I include myself) tend not to want to "waste" any of the precious liquid in the bottle, so we try to make sure the baby is very hungry before feeding (which usually results in putting the baby on a feeding schedule), and we try to make sure he finishes the bottle. As long as a bottle nipple is in the baby's mouth, it is hard for him to stop eating, because the nipple constantly drips into the baby's mouth, forcing him to swallow, which creates a vacuum that draws more milk from the bottle, which forces him to swallow again. We may be inadvertently forcing the baby to take in more calories than he needs, stretching the stomach and setting the stage for overeating later in life.

Breastfeeding also fosters bonding because you are forced to be in physical contact with the baby while he eats. We also naturally switch sides while breastfeeding so the baby can get milk from both sides. This switching back and forth stimulates both of the baby's eyes and both sides of the body. Often when we bottle-feed, we only hold the baby on whichever arm is more comfortable, so he doesn't get that back-and-forth advantage.

But, there's a way around both of these problems. Take a look at this article. If we bottle-feed in a way that mimics these two major benefits of breastfeeding, we can help to eliminate at least one of the risks of bottle-feeding.


Co-sleeping, or bed-sharing, is when your child sleeps in the same bed with you, rather than being placed in his own bed to sleep. You can co-sleep "part time," meaning you allow the child to sleep in your bed for part of the night, or "full time," meaning your bed is the only place the child sleeps, or something in between. Perhaps you sleep with your child in his bed for a while, and then slip away, or you start out in separate beds and at some point in the night end up together in the same bed. Perhaps you put your baby in a co-sleeper attached to the side of your bed, rather than directly in your bed with you.

Co-sleeping gives a baby or toddler a great sense of security at night. Humans are social animals, and we crave company, even at night. It is natural for us to share sleeping space, especially children. If the baby wakes up at night, the parent is right there to comfort him. You keep each other warm on a cold night. The rhythms of your breathing and heartbeat help to calm and regulate your baby's breathing and heartbeat. Your body heat helps baby to regulate his own body temperature. Your baby can sleep comfortably knowing that you are keeping an eye out for danger on his behalf. And you have an awareness of your baby and would know quickly if he were to wake or stop breathing (G-d forbid!).

If you do co-sleep, you should try to make your bed as safe a space as possible. If you are on medication that makes you sleep deeply, or you have been drinking and are not sure that you will wake up for the baby or be aware of him in bed, you should not co-sleep.

Baby-Led Weaning (BLW)

Baby-led weaning is a method of introducing solid foods to your baby that allows the baby to control what and how much he eats, rather than being fed purees with a spoon. You can use BLW whether you bottle- or breast-feed. When you're ready to introduce solid foods (at or after approximately six months of age), you can sit the baby in front of chunks of soft foods that he can easily pick up. Allow him to explore textures and flavors and offer him real foods. He will learn to feed himself, eat as much as he wants to, and stop when he's full.

When we look at parenting, we need to look at all of the choices we make and how they benefit our child. Whether we baby-wear or not, co-sleep or not, whether we breastfeed or bottle-feed, our main job as parents is to show our children that we love them, give them skills to cope with the world, and teach them that, no matter what, they are loved and we are there for them.

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