Why Closeness and Comfort Are More Important Than Whether You Breastfeed Or Bottle-Fed Your Baby
I am what you would call an experienced mother in more ways than one.
I have been helping mothers breastfeed their babies for 10 years with 6 years of breastfeeding my own children.
Professionally as a Nurse, I have helped many people in my line of work. Prior to that, I worked with children who have autism and as a teacher aide in an early education classroom for low-income children, tutor at the high school and university level in math and English, as an assistant for a high school school counsellor, sat and participated on the committee for a court diversion program for troubled youth, and more.
Let’s just say that if I included all the jobs and volunteer positions I have had in my pre-professional and professional career, my resume would be easily more than seven pages long. No matter the diversity in the multiple positions I have held in the past, there is one thing that they all have in common. They are all positions of care where I am helping others cope and sort through their life experiences. A somewhat mothering type of experience where I mothered others, in addition to the four children I have.
What I have learned is that early life experiences from birth really affect the development and course of an individual for their entire lifetime. Further, it is the early life experiences from birth where babies turn to their mothers to provide not only their immediate needs but for safety and comfort.
Dr. Harry Harlow 1932 Psychological Experiments On Infant Rhesus Monkeys
There is a famous psychological experiment conducted by behaviorist Dr. Harry Harlow in 1932, before the code of ethics that we have today. In fact, he repeated variations of this experiment but I will only very briefly summarize it as it is heart-wrenching.
He took rhesus monkeys and separated them from their mothers six to twelve hours after birth. He then, put each in their own cage with two artificial mothers. One was a wire structure with a bottle secured to it and the other was a wooden structure covered in cloth but did not have a bottle. He then watched to see which artificial mother the monkeys preferred when exposed to stressful stimuli, in other words he induced feelings of fear. He observed that the monkeys would choose the uncomfortable artificial mother with a bottle for feeding only, and would return to the artificial clothed mother without a bottle once feeding was completed. When stressful stimuli were introduced, the monkey would go to the clothed artificial mother. In another experiment, when the clothed artificial mother was fitted with a bottle, the monkeys were free to choose whichever artificial mother with a bottle they preferred. They preferred to stay with the clothed artificial mother with a bottle. Without getting too much into the psychological effects on the monkeys in their social behaviors towards each other and their own young, and the inferences that can be made between monkeys and humans in regards to attachment, I will say that there is substantial evidence that suggested that safety, security, and comfort are paramount in raising infants. Further, monkeys that were nursed away from their mothers compared to monkeys nursed by their own mothers were substantially different in not only attachment but in social behaviors as well, when fully grown.
I would be surprised if these experiments would be approved today but there is a lot of important evidence that points to how attachment and comfort is important in the emotional intelligence and emotional regulation of infants; and that these experiences are carried throughout our lifetime, displayed in the various ways that an adult human being reacts and copes with stress in their lives.
In essence, your emotional intelligence and regulation is affected directly by your early experiences of being mothered.
In the case of the monkeys in the experiment, breastfeeding showed more attachment behaviors than bottle feeding. More so, comfort and safety were more preferred than bottle feeding. What can be inferred from this experiment is that human babies are similar. If human babies could choose, they would likely choose security, comfort, and safety with their mothers over whichever method you feed your baby.
Yes, this is a monkey experiment and it is limited in how we can draw inferences from it. However, the separation and allowing the generational and emotional abuse of the monkeys towards themselves and their infants that occurred, is something that would not be allowed to be replicated today with animals or humans.
Skin-To-Skin Is Best
Breastfeeding has many benefits and I support all mothers who have never breastfed their babies to try to if they are able. Not because of the argument that “breast is best” versus “fed is best”. But because of the attachment factor. The closer an infant is to their mother, the more attachment an infant has. That means, breast milk aside, the act of breastfeeding creates more of an environment of comfort for an infant compared to bottle feeding. When you look closer, it is not the act of the infant suckling from the breast, but rather the skin-to-skin embrace and closeness that occurs with breastfeeding each and every time a baby is fed. Breastfeeding creates an enhanced sense of closeness and comfort for a baby compared to a mother that bottle feeds without that skin-to-skin at each and every feeding. There are many studies that show that premature infants develop better when they receive skin-to-skin compared to those that do not.
It is my professional observation and opinion that when it comes to whether or not a mother should breastfeed or bottle feed her baby, it is a matter of what works best for the mother and infant in regards to nutritional, health, medical, and other factors considered. If your baby really required breast milk and you are not able to offer it, your pediatrician would write a prescription for breast milk.
What is more important is that if you really want to promote the positive behaviors of attachment around breastfeeding for your bottle-fed baby, do not be ashamed of the type of milk they get. Be proud that you put 100% of your attention and provide skin-to-skin during each and every feed, because in the end, when your infant is all grown up, they will not remember whether they were breastfed or bottle-fed. They will remember the closeness, comfort, security, and safety you provided. You can never spoil a newborn by holding it. The closeness and security you provide actually changes the development of the brain. It creates emotionally competent individuals. Factors that a lot of breastfeeding advocates, researchers, and individuals miss. Breast milk versus formula, neither changes the development of the brain and its neuronal connections.
To summarize, it is my educated guess based on experience that the most important positive effects of breastfeeding versus bottle feeding is what mothers are doing while they breastfeed their babies. Breastfed newborns get skin-to-skin embraces 8-12 times a day with every feed in addition to other skin-to-skin time with their mothers. Bottle fed newborns in contrast would only get skin-to-skin whenever the mom decided to that. Current research shows there is a difference in physical closeness in regards to development of infants but it cannot account for how much of that difference is due to the act of breastfeeding. Maybe some of the positive outcomes of breastfeeding can be seen in bottle fed infants if mothers bottle fed during skin-to-skin time. As far as I know, there is currently no research that looks into this. (Take note I say bottle-fed which is meant to include bottle feeding breast milk and/or formula).
I want to make it clear that I am a breastfeeding advocate: I encourage mothers when they can, to breastfeed their babies because the nutritional and natural components of breast milk are most preferable over formula. However I am also a mental health advocate as well. The demands of work and life balance today typically do not support woman to be able to breastfeed and even if they did, woman are not able to breastfeed as long as they would like to. There may be other reasons that woman cannot breastfeed as well but the take-home point is: mothers must choose to do what is best for themselves and their baby. Major life decisions should be addressed because it improves the mental health of mom, baby, and others related. Major life decisions should not be made around whether or how long someone should breastfeed their baby. It does a disservice to mothers to put pressure or guilt them to breastfeed and have them be stressed and unable to meet the demands of their responsibilities. It is also a disservice to judge and guilt mothers who bottle-feed their babies. What is more important is how attentive, responsive, and close you are to your baby. The more comfort, safety, security, skin-to-skin, attentive, and responsive you are to your baby is what will affect them for their lifetime not what combinations of breast milk and/or formula they are getting.
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