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
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