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Bond With Your Baby Without Breastfeeding

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Breast milk is not a magic potion that creates a secure bond. Formula Moms can behave the same way as breastfeeding mothers.

mother feeding baby bottle of milk

Dr. Wendy Walsh: It's not new news that a healthy attachment between a parent and child has a strong relationship to mental health. A host of personality disorders, including an inability to tolerate intimacy and some sexual disorders, can be linked to early life attachment injuries. Parenting books love to promote breastfeeding as a powerful tool in producing a healthy attachment. But human breast milk is not a magic potion that creates a secure bond. While nursing mothers do undergo hormonal changes that increase their attachment behaviors, with a little creativity, formula Moms can behave the same way too. It is the nurturing behaviors that go along with breastfeeding that contribute to a healthy attachment. So, how do you preserve those breastfeeding attachment behaviors without breastfeeding? Well, it takes some life adjustments.

To understand how human personality and attachment was formed, it is important to look at our anthropological past. Human beings are born completely premature. When we evolved from traveling on all fours to becoming bipedal and standing upright, the sacrifice was female hip width. Upright balance meant the necessity for narrow hips. Simply put, narrow-hipped women could not give birth to high birthweight babies with big heads. And despite what you may think you see when you look at yourself in a pair of skinny jeans, you do have narrow hips compared to our ancestors! When we became bipedal, it is suspected that pregnancies became shorter and a vital "in arms" and "on breast" phase became a kind of second pregnancy that continued to nurture the brain. Today, during the first year of life, the human brains triple in size, and during that time the brain starts to create a blueprint for relationships. If most of their survival needs -- food, warmth, and safety -- are met in a timely manner, babies grow up to trust the world, and trust love. They grow up to become people who can give and receive care comfortably in their adult romantic lives. However, if a baby's needs are neglected and they are left to cry for too long, their brain begins to mistrust love and create a belief system that the world cannot meet their needs. Indeed, adults with early life attachment injuries too often feel, tragically, deeply unlovable.

So what are the mysterious actions that breastfeeding mothers seem to do more naturally? And how can a mother who feeds formula copy them? The biggest part is the time commitment. No one knows what the perfect mathematical ratio between holding a baby and laying them down, but it is known that breastfeeding takes plenty of time with an infant in arms. The average feeding takes 20 minutes on each breast, and eight to ten feedings in a 24-hour period. Do the math ladies. Breastfeeding mothers hold their babies for a MINIMUM of six to seven hours a day.

Next, consider the sucking reflex. Every baby has evolved with a certain degree of force and duration of sucking reflex. The urge to suckle is natural because sucking brings on a mother's breast milk and increases her supply when necessary. Rubber bottle nipples usually require much less oral energy and must be supplemented with a pacifier. Never deny a non-breastfed baby a pacifier. Oral disorders can lead to eating disorders, smoking, drinking and other issues. I, personally, have my own suspicions about the success of Starbucks -- providing a population of mostly non-breast fed baby boomers with warm sippy cups filled with steamed milk to suckle on all day. Yum. What a compensation for lack of breastfeeding!

Another important part of our development is dermal awareness. Nursing mothers have no shame. From a practical standpoint, there is plenty of nudity going on at feedings and experts in attachment also believe that skin-to-skin contact is an important part of our development as we learn to trust intimacy. Having a comfort without clothes and touching skin is how our bodies communicate without words. Formula mothers would be giving a gift to their babies of they would bundle them less and provide more skin-to-skin contact. Sometimes there is no better way to comfort an distressed child than by swaddling mommy and baby together under a cozy wrap.

Co-sleeping is another hallmark of attachment parenting. Babies are like heat-seeking missiles and love to snuggle up to a warm body. The close proximity also helps mothers respond to their babies needs quickly. And lest you fear that you might roll over and hurt your child, please know that the vast majority of cases of parents rolling over babies involve drugs, alcohol, or obesity. So, stay sober and cuddle up to that yummy bundle so they can feel secure all night. Co-sleeping is particularly beneficial for working mothers who may miss some daytime cuddling.

Finally, baby wearing can contribute to a healthy attachment. Thousands of years ago, when we lived in forests and roamed the savannah, all babies were worn or held all the time. Placing them on the forest floor would have risked them being snatched up by a predator. Strollers, baby seats and other manufactured "arms" may make mothers' lives more convenient, but try to use them in moderation to create a secure attachment. So many amazing baby slings are available today that your arms can remain free while you wear your baby.

Attachment is such an important part of human development. Our very survival is at risk if we do not learn to attach in a healthful way, or if we find ourselves attaching to hurtful people because that somehow feels familiar. Remember, it is impossible to spoil a baby. With attachment parenting techniques, you are not creating dependency, you are creating security so that your child can venture from your lap into the world when he/she is ready and empowered.

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75 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous August 19, 2009, 8:32 AM

Breastfeeding is super important but bonding can come in many ways. I had one breastfeed for 9 months, one couldn’t at all due to prematurity issues, and one breastfed and co-slept for 3 years and counting. They are all loved dearly and forever. Yet I’m amazingly close with the one that wasn’t breastfed at all. He was hugged and held a great deal though. So who knows?

Lindee August 19, 2009, 12:25 PM

I never breastfed my daughter and we are very close.

Martha  August 19, 2009, 9:16 PM

Yes, there are great ways to bond with your baby and she listed some wonderful ways of doing so! That is so wonderful for the mothers who are not able to breastfeed, but breastfeeding holds many other benefits as well as being much greener than formula to use. It costs much less as well, and if you are able to breastfeed, a happy side effect is the closeness!

Monica August 20, 2009, 1:50 AM

I only got to breastfeed for about three weeks. After that he bottle fed. One of my favorite ways to bond was to get in the middle of my bed lay on my back (I love sleeping on my back when I am tired) lay him on my chest with the skin of my chest exposed and wrap the covers tight around me and him so that it feels like he’s swaddled but at the same time he doesn’t fall off my chest. Talk about good times. My son smelled so sweet as a infant. Till this day (he just turned three this week) he still likes me to hold him sometimes to fall asleep.

Tracy August 22, 2009, 7:22 AM

I agree that the habits that go along with breastfeeding really help development. Every touch, every cuddle benefits their brain development.
That’s why it pains me so to see babies with propped up bottles in a buggy. Where I live this is so common, and breastfeeding rates are appalingly low.
If you have to bottlefeed, at least do it with a cuddle!

Harmony09 August 29, 2009, 12:03 PM

I believe bottlefeeding mothers can and do bond as well as breastfeeding mothers, studies support this. I am pro-breastfeeding and breastfed my first. But then I had preemies and I could not hold them at first, could not feed them for weeks and mostly we had to use bottles of expressed milk. Later on in infancy I had to switch to formula. Bonding was NOT interrupted by bottlfeeding, but it was interrupted when I could not hold them.

I do disagree with the math above. Breastfeeding mothers who work may hold their babies less hours than another mother, and it takes different babies different amounts of time to breastfeed. Many behaviors support healthy attachment. Breastfeeding, holding, skin-to-skin contact (see Kangaroo Care) are, but also making eye contact and just talking to your baby.

The most important factor is listen to what your particular babies needs are and responding appropriately when you can. You can’t hold a baby too much though, that is certain.

Mary King September 24, 2009, 10:19 PM

I intend to print out this article and give it to any mother friends who do not breastfeed—THANK YOU for identifying ways of nurturing the attachment relationship. I really love the overview of attachment theory and insights. Thanks again!

Anonymous December 13, 2009, 2:10 PM

Thank you for this article. I am a second time mom and was able to successfully breastfeed my first daughter, but with my second daughter I experienced several challenges that have not been resolved (even with the help of a consistent pumping schedule, lactation consultant, various herbal remedies and reglan). I think the idea most troubling me is the special nursing bond that I will never be able to experience with my second daughter. This article provides hope in establishing these precious bonding moments in other ways besides nursing.

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