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Breastfeeding: Comfort versus Nutrition
by Kathryn Orlinsky

A very common statement about older nurslings is that they nurse mainly for comfort rather than for nutritional needs. Children who only nurse when upset or tired, or who eat a large quantity or variety of other foods often fall into this category. Is this an accurate depiction? To some extent, it is. As one mother suggested, if a child has nursed his fill, then hurts himself and asks to nurse again, this time only long enough to regain his composure, what else can that second nursing be for, if not for comfort? Also, how much nutrition can a child get from nursing for a few minutes per day? These are valid questions. Nevertheless, I believe that it belittles human milk, the most nutritious substance in the world, as far as humans are concerned, to speak of it in these terms. Why disparage it this way? We never talk that way about other foods.

How much nutrition do we get from eating any small amounts of food? An older child with a varied diet doesn't need human milk in the same way that I don't need to eat apples. One apple doesn't contribute too many calories to my diet, but it's still a significant nutritional contribution. If I were writing down my diet to make sure that I got the right amount of nutrients and vitamins, I would certainly not omit the apple. It doesn't matter what my emotional state was when I ate the apple either, it is still nutritionally significant. I think of human milk the same way. It may or may not contribute a significant amount of calories and it may not be essential to sustain life, but on the days when a child consumes it, it is nutritionally significant. And that doesn't even include the other health benefits of human milk, such as protection from disease or gastrointestinal discomfort.

Why do we expect more from human milk than from any other food source? If a child doesn't appear to need human milk for survival, we as a society are quick to decide that breastfeeding is now unnecessary and that every effort should be made to wean the child.

We don't say that children should stop eating bananas once bananas are no longer a significant part of their diet. Bananas eaten once in a while are as nutritious as bananas eaten three times a day. In fact, you might even consider the rarely eaten banana to be more important nutritionally. Why do we not see that the same is true of human milk?

I think this whole "comfort nursing" thing started because people were comparing breastfeeding with sucking on thumbs or pacifiers. In our culture, those things are more commonly used by older children than breastfeeding, and of course, they are sucked on purely for comfort; nothing comes out of them. Our society then assumes that breastfeeding children of the same age are suckling for the same reasons.

My last point is that we assume that children are nursing for comfort because they only ask to nurse when they are upset or tired. What if the reason they are upset in the first place is because they are experiencing low blood sugar or lacking some other nutritional element found in human milk? They don't realize that's what is wrong with them, and neither do we.

Under this scenario, despite what we see - child asks to nurse when she needs to be comforted - the true reason behind the nursing might be nutritional. By the same token, a younger child who gets all of his nutrition from the breast may also be nursing to comfort himself.

I realize that there are differences between nursing one-year-olds and nursing six-year-olds. Their nutritional and emotional needs are very different. However, I strongly feel that it is wrong to arbitrarily establish distinctions between "comfort nursing" and "nutritional nursing". Breastfeeding will always be about both aspects; they cannot be separated.
 

1989 Kathy Orlinsky. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Kathryn Orlinsky received her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Irvine.

 
 
 
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