Does it seem like your baby always wants to breastfeed? Perhaps it even seems impossible that they could need that much food!
Many parents struggle to know how much feeding is normal for a newborn. This uncertainty can lead to anxiety about over- or underfeeding baby and analyzing everything about your baby’s breastfeeding habits.
With all the worries parents experience about properly feeding their baby, it’s important to remember that breastfeeding can provide a lot more than just nourishment.
If you find yourself with a baby who seemingly always wants to be at the breast, they may be trying to achieve much more than a full tummy.
This type of breastfeeding is referred to as comfort nursing, and you may have tons of questions about it. Is it good for the baby? What about the mom? When does it happen and should it be encouraged?
Comfort nursing is breastfeeding for another purpose besides feeding.
While the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend breast milk or formula as the sole source of a baby’s food/nutrients during the first 6 months, and encourage breastfeeding for longer, breastfeeding can be done for much more than just feeding your baby.
Breastfeeding offers opportunities for:
- relief from pain
Both infants and toddlers can desire comfort nursing when they’re going through periods of exceptional growth, are in pain, struggling to fall asleep, or just seeking connection.
Comfort nursing is also sometimes called non-nutritive sucking. However, this isn’t entirely accurate since breasts typically release a little milk anytime a baby is attached sucking, and some calories are typically transferred even during comfort nursing.
Nutritionally speaking, comfort nursing is more like a snack than a full meal. Eating frequent snacks throughout the day along with good sized meals is a great way to gain weight.
For babies in their first months of life, comfort nursing can help provide extra nutrients needed for massive growth spurts and trigger greater milk production while bonding parents with their babies.
What does comfort nursing look like?
Sometimes it can be a short nursing session following a fall or disappointment that soothes your baby’s tears.
Sometimes it can be your little one crawling into your lap with drowsy eyes, looking for pre-nap cuddles and nursing, even after a full lunch.
Sometimes it can be a few hours in the evening when nothing seems to make your little one happy beyond being in your arms, at the breast.
In almost all instances, it looks like your little one seeking the familiar comfort of breastfeeding to meet needs beyond simple nourishment.
What does comfort nursing feel like?
You may also be wondering what comfort nursing feels like.
Comfort nursing may include different types of sucking in varying duration, including flutter sucking. Remember, comfort nursing just means that the primary goal is not eating a full meal, so many types of sucking motions can achieve this.
We know what you’re thinking: Wait a second, what is flutter sucking? Flutter sucking is the type of slow, drowsy sucking that’s common at the end of breastfeeding sessions.
A typical feeding session will start with strong sucks to stimulate the milk let-down reflexes. Then, a feed will typically involve rhythmic sucks intermixed with occasional pauses for swallowing.
At the very end of a feeding session, a sleepy or full baby may slow down, stop sucking, and make quivery little sucks. This is flutter sucking.
Comfort nursing may include some stronger sucks, but often focuses more on the gentler, spaced motions typical of flutter sucking.
There are many misconceptions about flutter sucking. Flutter sucking is not active feeding. It’s also not the same as a jaw or tongue tremble. Contrary to popular misconception, it’s not when your baby is getting all the higher fat milk either.
Flutter sucking will not really help to increase your milk supply or encourage your baby to put on more weight. Remember, minimal amounts of milk are being transferred during flutter sucking!
What it can do is offer a baby comfort, encourage bonding, and offer your little one the chance to fall asleep on you — which frequently aligns with the goals of comfort nursing.
If you choose to comfort nurse, you may get some negative feedback from others. They may say things like:
- “You shouldn’t be your baby’s pacifier.”
- “You’ll spoil your baby.”
- “You’re going to overfeed your baby.”
- “Your baby will never learn to fall asleep on their own if you keep letting them nurse to sleep.”
- “This will cause your child to have attachment issues later in life.”
Are those concerns valid?
Those who believe in comfort nursing will point out:
- Babies aren’t yet developmentally capable of manipulating adults or aware enough to problem-solve.
- Parents offer their children pacifiers to suck on all the time when they’re upset, hurt, or trying to fall asleep, because they simulate a breast. Why are these acceptable but not the real thing?
- If babies have a biological need to suck and their parent is available, doesn’t it make more sense to offer them a natural solution instead of a substitute?
- Calming an upset baby is a natural part of parenting, and breastfeeding is a natural way to do so.
- Sucking actually releases sleep inducing hormones, which can help babies establish their circadian rhythms.
- Bonding between parents and children is an important part of the secure attachment that ultimately leads to well-adjusted, happy adults!
It’s important to point out that there’s not scientific evidence proving comfort feeding has long-term negative effects.
So, when should you be concerned about comfort nursing? Simply put, when it impacts the health of you or your baby!
While comfort nursing is typical behavior for breastfeeding babies who are developing appropriately, you should still monitor to make sure that nothing else is wrong. This is particularly true if other problem indicators exist.
For example, if your baby wants to nurse continuously and isn’t gaining weight, something is probably off that needs to be fixed.
You may want to work with a lactation consultant to determine whether milk is transferring appropriately or your baby is feeding inefficiently, or why they’re not getting enough milk despite constant feeds.
Alternatively, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by demands being placed on you, something needs to change. Breastfeeding is a relationship between you and your baby, and it needs to be working for everyone involved!
From a health perspective, one other thing to consider is that you’ll want to carefully break the latch if your child falls asleep on you while breastfeeding. This way your child won’t continue to suck at the breast through the night. This can lead to cavities from milk sitting on the gums.
Why do little ones want to comfort nurse?
Comfort nursing can offer:
- help for baby and mom in falling asleep
- pain relief
- necessary extra food during growth spurts
FYI: If a parent refuses to respond to a baby’s hunger cues for fear that they’re just looking for comfort, this could prevent the baby from getting the milk they need!
Perhaps you recognize these benefits but feel overwhelmed by the physical demands of your baby’s desire to comfort feed. If that’s the case, you may want to try carrying your baby in a sling or wrap. Doing so can offer some of the warmth, security, and attachment they’re likely seeking without the physical demands of breastfeeding.
If you find yourself with an infant who always wants to feed despite their belly being full, it’s important to remember that non-nutritive or comfort nursing can also provide benefits.
While you’ll want to make sure that your breastfeeding routine is providing sufficient nutrients (and not placing too much of a burden on you!), comfort nursing can offer a great opportunity to bond, relax, and even help your baby relieve some pain.
If you’re concerned about your baby’s weight, feeling overwhelmed by breastfeeding, or just would like a different perspective, you may want to reach out to a lactation consultant. They can offer you suggestions, reassurance, and an outside perspective.