About a year ago, I purchased and read Tears and Tantrums: What to Do When Babies and Children Cry by Aletha Solter, PhD. It was a helpful little book during a difficult fussy period with my fifth baby. Ever since I finished the book, I have thought periodically (and especially in the past couple of months) about one particular issue raised by Dr. Solter: breastfeeding as a “control pattern.”
Before I go any further, I want to explain what Dr. Solter means by “control pattern.” While Dr. Solter believes babies should never be left to cry alone, she is a strong proponent of letting babies (and children and adults) cry often as a means of releasing stress and expressing strong emotions. This should only be done in the arms of a loving caregiver and only after all apparent needs have been met (ensuring that the child is not hungry, cold, in need of a diaper change, etc.). I found this particular quote to be spot-on:
Crying is often considered to be an unnecessary by-product of stress, and many people have the incorrect impression that children would feel better if they would only stop crying. This is incorrect. No matter what the source of stress, children will not feel better until they have been allowed to cry and rage as much as needed (p. 12).
When an infant is not given the opportunity to cry or rage, it is usually because an alternative has been offered to quiet the child. These substitutes for crying can develop into what Dr. Solter calls “control patterns.” Among the most common control patterns for infants are: pacifier sucking, thumb sucking, excessive clinging, attachment to a blanket or toy, demands for entertainment, hyperactivity, self-rocking/head-banging, and frequent nursing “for comfort.” Yeah… nursing for comfort. That one stung.
When I initially learned about nursing as a control pattern, I dismissed the issue because my baby was so young that it was difficult to distinguish when she wanted to nurse for food or when she was simply in need of comfort. I have always nursed on demand because that was what I always thought was best. How could nursing my baby ever be a bad thing? For the past year I have pondered this question quite a lot.
The day after my first baby’s birth, a doctor said to me, “You’re not a pacifier you know.” In retrospect, I was enraged. I wrote:
Could there really be a more fitting description for a mother than that? Pacifier. Yes. It is exactly what our bodies, hearts, and souls were designed to be. We–our arms, our bodies, our kisses, our breasts–are the ultimate and best source of peace and comfort for our children. We allay, soothe, settle, restore to a tranquil state, calm. A mother’s smell and touch are life-giving, healing, and far more soothing than anything else in a baby’s world. We are peace-givers and peacemakers. We are the original, supreme, and ultimate pacifiers.
When my third baby was sick and hospitalized at 9 months of age, the nurses wanted me to track all of his feedings to be sure he was eating enough, despite having lots of wet and poopy diapers. When I explained that he was nursing almost constantly, one nurse declared, “Well, then that’s not breastfeeding… that’s just for comfort.” Again, I was perplexed and upset. Of course he was seeking comfort! He was very sick, sleeping in a foreign place, being awakened repeatedly (after finally, blessedly falling asleep) for nurses and doctors to “take a peek” at his rash, being poked multiple times for blood draws and tests. Of course he wanted and needed extra comfort! But that “comfort” and my breastmilk were inseparable. Even if a baby is suckling only for comfort, the breast doesn’t know the difference. The breast responds to suckling by giving milk.
And yet, Dr. Solter’s words continue to rattle around my brain, making me uncomfortable:
Babies need to cry in order to release the pain resulting from both emotional and physical trauma. Anything that stops the crying is a disservice to the baby, even though it appears to be loving and kind. The need to cry does not disappear when a baby is nursed. It is simply postponed. The tears will need to come out eventually. . . . Mothers who respond to every discomfort of their children by nursing them may be projecting their own needs onto their children (p. 67-68).
Because of my own history and struggles with abandonment issues, there is almost nothing more important to me than establishing a secure, unbreakable attachment with my babies, telling them with my every touch and action that I will always be here, that I will never abandon them, especially when they need me the most, no matter what time of day or night. For me, nursing has been an important way to communicate my presence and permanence to my children.
But maybe I’m depriving my one-year-old of something valuable when I stop her night-time cries with my breast? She is clearly old enough to go through the night without food. It’s not very likely she is hungry. For a couple of weeks I tried letting her cry in my arms instead. It was brutally hard. And the sudden drop in night-time feedings gradually sent my hormones into a wacky spin. It was torturing both of us. So I decided it was too much too soon, and I started nursing her back to sleep again.
It’s really hard to maintain either alternative, whether crying-in-arms or nursing-all-night. It’s hard to be awoken so often. One-year-olds are really hard for me. After months and months, the night-nursing sleep-debt is beginning to catch up to me. Actually, from age 1 to age 3 is hard for me. Good thing they’re so cute.
I haven’t really figured out what I think about this yet. I’m still pondering it. But I wanted to throw it out there. Do you think it’s possible to nurse too often? Should breastfeeding be reserved for happy times? I’d love to hear your thoughts. As always, please keep the comments kind. :-)