“You know, babies can sometimes use the breast as a pacifier,” my daughter’s pediatrician informed me at her four-month-old checkup. This came after I had just told her doctor that my daughter wasn’t sleeping through the night yet—and that she was still nursing fairly frequently, even at night. I wasn’t worried about my daughter’s habits, knowing them to be fairly normal for her age. But if I were a first-time mom, the pediatrician’s comment might have thrown me.
Two kids in, I’ve come to find that the message that breastfeedings moms are simply “pacifiers” is a pervasive one. I believe it can also be a damaging one, especially for first-time moms or moms struggling with breastfeeding (as we ALL do at first). The problem is, it suggests that the new mom is doing something wrong by feeding her baby on-demand—even though research suggests there are multiple benefits to responsive feeding, especially in the earliest months of a baby’s life. And it’s especially unhelpful to add doubt about this during an already emotionally fraught, sleep-deprived time, when so many new mothers are struggling with feelings of burn-out and inadequacy.
Complicating an already complicated time
For a natural bodily process, breastfeeding can be surprisingly difficult. It is both physically and emotionally draining, and pretty much everyone who’s done it will tell you that it’s really tough for at least the first six to eight weeks.
Part of what makes it so difficult is that if you’re breastfeeding, and especially if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, you are beholden to your little bundle of joy who has just discovered a whole bundle of needs. And, the fact is, babies breastfeed for all sorts of reasons. If a baby is crying to be breastfed, the reasons could include her being hungry, thirsty, sick, getting sick, scared and needs comfort, tired, teething … the list goes on. Because of this, there’s a very important truth I think all new mothers should know: none of these are bad reasons to nurse your baby.
Do babies sometimes pacify at the breast? Maybe. But is that really so wrong? Truly, especially for really little ones, a baby’s wants are a baby’s needs; there really is no distinction between the two. When you think about it, it’s silly to imply that breastfeeding moms need to parse out when their babies are simply “using them as a pacifier,” because it implies that babies can somehow be manipulative. (Spoiler alert: they can’t be. Even at 3 a.m.) The last thing a new mom needs is yet another reason to second-guess herself, which is exactly what the “pacifier” suggestion can do.
Accepting the healthy new normal
Can breastfeeding in the postpartum period be daunting and exhausting? Yes! Which is why some women decide to introduce bottle-feeding, so that they are not solely responsible for every feeding baby receives. Some women may even choose to forego breastfeeding altogether, if they (and/or their loved ones) find that it’s taking a dangerous toll on the new mother’s mental health. One thing is for certain: whatever a new mother’s journey with breastfeeding may be, provided there isn't a medical issue with the baby's nutrition, remarks about how she chooses to feed her baby are at best unwelcome, and at worst harmful.
The bottom line is: if it feels right to breastfeed your baby, it’s probably right to breastfeed your baby. Breastfeeding is about so much more than eating, after all: it establishes and nourishes an incredible bond between mother and baby with benefits that last well beyond when baby finally weans.
So, all “normal” difficulties aside, if your breastfeeding journey is going reasonably well, you don’t need to keep yourself awake at night parsing out all of the reasons your newborn might be nursing. Your baby will do enough of that for you.