More Than Milk: Building Connection at Feeding Time
written by Renee Mandala, ParentCare Director
Infant caregiving is demanding and rewarding. Adults and babies grow capacities rapidly, and caregiving times can build connection. As such, feeding time is about more than nutrition. The infant’s physical, social, neurological, emotional, and sensory systems develop, while relationship-building and co-regulation of our nervous systems take place, in addition to the baby achieving satiety.
Mutual sharing times, such as during breastfeeding can also happen during bottle feeding- with Mom and other caregivers, especially Dads and other kin. More than delivering milk, feeding offers a time of communication and connection. “Bottle nursing” is a term that refers to mimicking the breastfeeding behaviors that promote attachment and connection.
Feeding is a reciprocal process that depends upon both the infant and caregiver, and are a learning time for both. Feedings are initiated by baby’s behavior. Learning baby’s hunger cues and responding is a beautiful start to trust and connection. Moms, Dads and other caregivers find that their timely response with bottle or breast results in both baby and caregiver feelings of calm and satisfaction.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erickson’s lifespan model poses that one of the infant’s important tasks is to develop trust in others. When adults respond to baby’s needs in a manner that is consistent, predictable and reliable, they develop a sense of trust that their needs will be met, which will carry with them to other relationships in their lifetime. Feeding time is a time for consistent and reliable responses by caregivers to baby’s cues.
Pediatric specialists William and Martha Sears puts it nicely. “There’s a person at both ends of the bottle.”
Tips to increase connection:
-Watch for baby’s hunger cues, rather than impose a schedule,
-Hold baby to your chest, in close, perhaps with short sleeves or without a shirt, for increased tactile sensation. Baby’s cheek, face, arms and legs can contact caregiver’s skin,
-Slow flow nipples and paced bottle feeding can help baby regulate how much and how fast they feed,
-Switch the arm you hold baby in to mimic breastfeeding, increasing eye and brain stimulation,
-Sometimes babies feed with eyes closed. When baby shows interest, adult may like to talk to them softly.
Remember that many infants have sucking needs that are sometimes confused with “still hungry.” Research has associated bottle feeding with overfeeding, and overfeeding formula with obesity. We can explore if baby would like sucking (clean finger, pacifier or breast) and holding rather than more bottled milk.
Dr. Mary Ainsworth’s extensive research shows that newborn feeding goes best when parents adjust their approach to the infant’s timing, preference, pacing. When we endeavor to understand baby’s cues for starting and stopping feeding, they feel understood. We just do our best. Over time, we understand more.
Families benefit most when babies and adults find calm and pleasure together. Infant feeding times, whether with breast or bottle, can be a “time out” several times daily, where adults, with babes in arms, stop multi-tasking, sit, breathe, gaze, and just enjoy being together.
Additional Resource: To learn more, here is a post from MomLovesBest.com with over 30 in-depth tips to help ease into the transition of bottle feeding, while still maintaining that beautiful breastfeeding connection with your baby.