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Does Breastfeeding on Demand Spoil Children?

Women have been warned for decades that they will spoil their children if they respond too readily to their children's needs: mothers are supposed to approach babies and children with restraint and keep them at a distance. Thus, child-rearing experts admonish parents that babies should not fall asleep at the breast. These experts decry the possibility that a baby may become too dependent upon the breast and his mother.

Standard child-rearing advice suggests instead that a young baby should learn how to comfort himself with an inanimate object such as a blanket, a safe baby toy, a pacifier, or even a mother's tee shirt. Encouraging a baby to become attached to an object in early childhood may result, however, in a lifelong fixation on a specific object. Steven Barrie-Anthony reports that this type of attachment may be exhibited by adults who treasure certain objects, like a childhood pillow.1

Therapists are inclined to think that an attachment to things is healthier than an addiction to vices. Indeed, a man who clings to the same childhood pillow for decades may be perfectly healthy. At the same time, one has to wonder why a person develops such a keenly obsessive devotion to an object in the first place. Evidently, therapists are disinclined to address the root cause of obsessive attachment to objects, which is undoubtedly the experience of maternal detachment during childhood.

Over the past century, child-rearing experts have been advising mothers to separate themselves from their young babies and children, but they have been doing this without understanding the consequences of offering such advice. A friend relayed to me the edicts of the pediatrician who told her how to rear her children in the 1960s. She was not to spoil her children by comforting them with her love and warm embrace: instead, she was to keep her distance and control her silly maternal emotions. She followed his advice, however unwillingly, and she has been left to wonder how her beloved and kind children matured into troubled adults.

The anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote often that children are not spoiled by receiving too much love but by not receiving enough love. This is an important perspective that defies the common perception of what spoils children. Children may become spoiled as a result of experiencing insufficient love. They crave attention and affection because they did not receive enough love in early childhood.

Young children need warm and loving human interaction, and they can receive it when they are breastfed on demand. Breast­feeding on demand bestows upon young children the security of knowing that they are cared for and loved. Current parenting practices today, however, include the withholding of maternal availability and the denial of breast­feeding's importance.

As increasing numbers of children experience greater deprivation, more individuals will be searching to find the love and security that they should have experienced during early childhood. Some individuals may be fortunate enough to share their concerns about life with caring family members and friends. Others may seek professional therapy for themselves or their children in order to learn how to rectify whatever troubles them about their existence, including perhaps the inability to love and to be loved.

The British psychiatrist Anthony Storr offers the following intriguing perspective on the analytical encounter: "In no other situation in life can anyone count on a devoted listener who is prepared to give so much time and skilled attention to the problems of a single individual without asking for any reciprocal return, other than professional remuneration. The patient may never have encountered anyone in his life who has paid him such attention or even been prepared to listen to his problems."2

Storr's assessment of the unique role of a skilled analyst seems to deny the existence of a healthy and loving relationship between mother and child. His outlook, however, makes sense since the value of mothering has been profoundly demeaned over the past century. In a world that esteems mothering, nevertheless, Storr's description of a skilled analyst would fit to a tee all loving and attentive mothers.

The majority of mothers are devoted, reliable, attentive, interested, and available; they also do not expect remuneration from their children. In addition, breast­feeding mothers are physically more available for their young children: they offer nurturing at the breast and are often highly attuned to their nurslings' needs. Without a doubt, loving and attentive breast­feeding mothers provide their offspring with the kind of attention that not even the most skilled analyst could possibly offer.

For those who appreciate the importance of breast­feeding and mothering, Storr's comment may be revised so that the first sentence would begin as follows: "In no other situation in life, other than the breast­feeding mother-child dyad, can anyone count on a devoted listener ..." The receipt of healthy maternal attention in the form of availability and breast­feeding early in life would probably diminish the need for many people to seek therapy and analysis later in life. At the same time, it is also much easier, less expensive, and more enjoyable to learn the meaning of love at the breast than it is to learn the same lesson on a therapist's couch.

Some may argue that this analogy is faulty since little verbal communication occurs between the breast­feeding mother and her baby. The anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt contends, though, that mother and infant do indeed have dialogues. He mentions this dialogue in the context of attachment, which he describes as the infant's search for the security of knowing that his need for care, love, food, and warmth will be met.

In the search for such security, the infant will seek support from his environment and will focus specifically on his mother. Goldschmidt elaborates further on infant behavior: "By the twelfth week it is responding to this mother-figure differently than it responds to others. The essential content of those dialogues are the request for the nurturant love and the assurance that it will be given. All those infant tricks to induce parental response and love are in the service of making a secure and satisfying attachment."3 Whether or not the baby succeeds in attaching to his mother depends upon the baby's temperament, as well as the mother's. Goldschmidt observes astutely that women vary in their commitment to and talent for motherhood.

Women who undertake the task of motherhood often make tremendous efforts to understand their babies. The babies who receive such attentive care early in life will indubitably learn not only how to grapple with their own emotions and needs but also to articulate their concerns and problems to others. If children can communicate well and someone cares to listen, especially the mother, then it is unlikely that the children will become spoiled.

Many children are now growing up, however, without the consistent presence and availability of a maternal figure. These children may have difficulty articulating their angst. Frustrated and miserable, these children may exhibit the spoiled behavior that so repels many parents. The development of such behavior could be prevented if more children were given the opportunity to receive the benefits and intimacy of loving and devoted maternal care.

1 Los Angeles Times, 1-20-05.
2 Storr, Anthony. Solitude. New York: Random House, 1988.
3 Goldschmidt, Walter. The Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Excerpted with permission of the author from Mothering with Breast­feeding and Maternal Care.