Before we become mamas and papas, most of us have an idea of how we’d like to parent. For many moms (and several exceptional transgender dads), breastfeeding is how we see ourselves kicking off a loving parental relationship. But for others, it may not be in the cards, and it might not even be on our radar.
While breastmilk is the ideal nourishment for new babies, the reality is that most parents today feed their babies formula at some point. And there are three important tools to build a successful nursing relationship with your bottle feeding baby.
Let’s start with the basics – what is nursing? While typically used to describe breastfeeding, nursing is the practice of nurturing your child both physically and emotionally. And, yes, nursing absolutely can be accomplished while feeding through a bottle. You can nurse your baby through touch, trust and attention.
One of the most important gifts that parents can give their baby, and themselves, is being hands-on. Literally. During the first year of life, babies need loving touch as much as they need food and shelter. Possibly more.
In famed experiments conducted by Harry Harlow, baby monkeys clung to a substitute wire “mother” wrapped in a bit of soft cloth over one stocked with milk.
Not only do our babies need touch in order to thrive, so do we parents! Multiple studies have shown that moms who stayed in close contact with their babies during the hours and months following birth were more responsive to their babies.
Our babies literally teach us how to parent them – we open ourselves to those vital lessons by holding them close.
One of the benefits of breastfeeding is that, because we can’t see how much is going down, we have to trust our babies to regulate their own feedings.
Bottle feeding parents can take their cues from mother nature by trusting their babies to call the shots. If your baby cues hunger, it’s time for a feeding. Most babies do this by rooting around for a nipple or sticking out their tongues, but you’ll quickly learn your baby’s unique signs by paying close attention. If he’s still hungry after he finishes his bottle, it’s time for another one!
Don’t worry what the label says about how large a serving size is, or how often you should feed your baby. These numbers are recommendations based on averages. Your baby is the best judge of his own appetite. If he’s hungry, you can feel safe trusting him (barring any exceptional medical conditions, consult your doctor if you suspect an issue).
Conversely, if your baby slows down or stops before finishing his bottle, take his word for it – he’s all set! Though it’s tempting to try to squeeze in the rest of the bottle so none of it “goes to waste,” it’s an even bigger waste for your baby to learn that his inner compass is not to be trusted. Take the lead in trusting your baby so that he can learn to trust himself.
The value of connecting emotionally with your baby during and between feedings cannot be overestimated.
My neighbor, a committed mama who adopted two babies from Russian orphanages, shared a moving story to illustrate this point. The orphanages that housed her babies for their first months of life made a practice of facing their babies away from caregivers during feeding time. This practice, which blocks the emotional intimacy of shared gazing or eye contact, led the babies to distrust emotional intimacy. Working to overcome the obstacles of their early rearing, my neighbor would turn them to face her as they fed. Her babies cried, they screamed, they threw violent tantrums – anything to regain the anonymity that has led many children with similar upbringings to a state of disconnection at the mild end, and mental illness at the more extreme end of the spectrum.
My point in raising this example isn’t to scare anyone, but to show what many of us take for granted – using the moments in which we nourish our babies to nurture them emotionally is a gift that keeps on giving.
Keeping your conscious, loving attention focused on your baby will not only help you to read his signals (full, hungry, need to poop, etc), it will also lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy relationships.
We all want what’s best for our babies. And no matter whether we are breast feeding our babies, bottle feeding them breast milk or formula, we can nurse, nourish and nurture them – body and soul.