Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I'm Addicted to My Baby

Breastfeeding has a subtle but incredible effect on me: It makes me addicted to my baby. I've never thought about it in those terms before, but now that I'm on my third nursling, I actually noticed this pattern. When I'm agitated or upset, the first thing I do is seek out my baby and go cuddle with him, and nurse him if he's willing. It's the first thing I think to do when I'm in need of comfort or help calming myself down, when I want to take a few minutes to relax, or if I'm trying to get my thoughts in order or escape some source of stress: I scoop up the baby and lie down with him in bed.

It's perfectly logical. Nursing releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that is also responsible for feelings of contentment. In a way, you really could become "addicted" to nursing, because the oxytocin burst is so potent. It's not an obvious thing. In fact, as I said, I didn't even realize that I was actively seeking out an oxytocin hit until a few days ago. I was feeling a bit down, and I actually thought to myself, "I need the baby."

In fact, any skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, and not just for babies. Hugging or prolonged contact or engagement with someone you care about has a calming effect and can even boost the immune system!

But why the baby in particular? Why not one of my other kids, or my husband, or a friend?

Well, I realized that they are also on the list. My first thought is usually the baby, probably because the physical contact coupled with nursing gives me the most immediate oxytocin response. Plus, the baby won't protest, won't judge me, won't talk back, will let me talk to him about anything, won't have other things he'd rather be doing, and is easily scoop-up-able. Sometimes I do gather up my toddler in a hug and a cheek-to-cheek cuddle, or scootch up beside my 5-year-old on the couch, hip-to-hip, to see what he's up to. Many times, a back rub from my husband will put the world right-side-up again. And, a phone call to a distant friend, while no match for physical contact, is still an option when no one else is around.

But there's something about the baby. His skin is so soft and pleasant to stroke. His face lights up in a smile when he sees me. He wiggles in anticipation when I offer to nurse. It's unconditional acceptance and delight in my presence with no expectations or preconditions, no give-and-take, no time limit. I am his world, and, in return, when I need him to be, he is my world.

Knowing the science behind the feeling doesn't take away the magic. Rather, it just reinforces that we are meant to love our children, to bond with them, to crave them. It creates an imperative to protect them, to nurture them, to want to see them happy. Physical affection is necessary and normal. Hugs and kisses and cuddles are a biological need.

Next time you're feeling down, see what your first instinct is. Do you reach for a cigarette or glass of wine, a chocolate bar or cookie? Or do you look for a loved one to hug? I know what I'd choose.

Although chocolate would run a close second.

So that's it, really. I'm addicted to my baby. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

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