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Mother-Baby Separation: Is it just a matter of milk?

Nursing mothers often worry about circumstances that might require them to leave their baby, and wonder how best to meet their baby's emotional and nutritional needs should such a situation arise. Many mothers assume that the best preparation for this possibility is to teach their baby to take a bottle, so there will be an alternative to nursing if it is ever needed.

However, a bottle is not a solution that I can recommend. One problem is the possibility of "nipple confusion". Many babies will suck only from breast or bottle, one or the other - but not both. One reason for this is that the sucking method is surprisingly quite different. A baby who is breast­feeding successfully can become confused by an alternative that requires a different method. Learning to suck from a bottle could then interfere with his ability to nurse properly from the breast. Since there are so many benefits of breast­feeding, both physical and emotional, for baby and mother, anything that might interfere with this extremely beneficial relationship should be avoided if at all possible.

Your baby is communicating with you

Babies have exceptional survival instincts. While a baby's resistance to bottles may be frustrating for parents, such resistance is in fact the baby's way of communicating his instinctual need to be with his mother as much as possible. Even bottles filled with breast milk cannot satisfy a baby's emotional need for the mother's presence. For the early months and years, it is essential that a baby has full opportunity to bond first with his mother. Only then can he successfully move on to closely-bonded relationships with his father, and then with others.

Breast­feeding, beyond all of its many physical benefits, has the built-in bonus of requiring the mother's close presence. A baby has no sense of time and no way of knowing that an absent mother will ever return, yet he understands intuitively that her presence is essential. Thus, a mother's absence can be quite terrifying for a baby. For this reason, it is important to keep such absences to the barest minimum, in both length and frequency.

If you simply must leave

If it is absolutely essential to leave your baby, try to be away as short a time as possible, and to schedule things carefully, so that you are gone between feedings or during naps, rather than during a time when she is apt to be awake and hungry.

If a separation is absolutely unavoidable during a time when she is hungry, perhaps she will accept expressed breast milk from a spoon. By about 9 - 12 months of age, babies can learn to drink from a cup. However, I offer these suggestions not as a routine solution but only as a last resort in a rare, emergency situation. It would be far better to avoid separations as much as possible and to carefully schedule the rare departures that cannot be avoided. In fact I urge mothers to make every effort to avoid such departures altogether if possible. Not only do alternate feeding methods interfere with the baby's ability to nurse, but more significantly, all separations can potentially interfere to some degree with a baby's developing sense of trust and security. The more completely a child's need for dependence is met in the earliest years, the more independent the child will become later on (see Dr. James Kimmel's short book, Whatever Happened to Mother?).

Babies not allowed? Ask!

I would also like to stress an important practical consideration that is often overlooked. Parents often assume that a baby will not be welcome or appropriate in certain situations, but they may be pleasantly surprised if they simply ask to bring the baby along. Many parents have had the frustrating discovery of going to a special event without their baby or child, only to find that other parents have brought their children along.

If you must attend a function where babies or toddlers are not allowed, ask that your baby be brought to you for nursing breaks. Requests like this can help others become more aware of the critical importance of breast­feeding and bonding. Even if your request is denied, it can help to educate others, and in this way contribute to the process of social change. In many countries, babies and children are far more welcome in "adult" settings than in North America. It is time to request and advocate for change in this area.

Your own anxieties

It is not only the baby who finds separation difficult! Breast­feeding mothers quite naturally find that they also become uneasy when separated from their baby:

You won't want to leave your baby any more than you have to because babies need their mothers. It's a need that is as basic and intense as his need for food. "That's all well and good," you may be thinking, "but what about me? I have needs too." Of course a mother has needs, and sometimes other responsibilities and obligations cause a mother to be away from her baby more than she wants to be. But you may be surprised to find how strong the bond is that develops between you and your baby. A mother often finds that when she does leave her baby for that long-awaited "night out," she worries so much about how the baby is getting along that she doesn't really enjoy the occasion!1


It is my hope that all parents will weigh potential separations with great care, taking into account their child's needs; after all, they are unable to speak for themselves and are dependent on us for their care and protection. Infancy and childhood go by with incredible speed; there will be time later for parents to pursue personal activities. Mothers who avoid separations for as long as possible reap countless benefits later. And it is much easier to reach one's personal goals when not distracted and worried about a child's health and welfare.

The older the child, the better he will be able to manage separation, but all children benefit by having their mother available, both physically and emotionally, as much as possible. One of the most important advantages of breast­feeding is that the mother is present. This is Nature's plan for keeping mother and child close, providing the connection and reassurance the child needs so profoundly.

The Womanly Art of Breast­feeding (La Leche League, New York: Plume Books, 1997)

French translation

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.