One of the first pieces of advice I received as a new mother was to never let my baby use me as a pacifier. I took this advice to heart, resolving to keep my daughter on an ironclad feeding schedule: once every two hours, 20 minutes on each side, so regular that I may as well have asked her to punch in and out at each shift.
Even with these strict self-imposed limits, breastfeeding was more of a commitment than I had anticipated. For the next few weeks I barely left the house so that I could remain topless and layered with lanolin salves. I was so sore that even the spray from the showerhead made me wince. But I powered through and stuck to the schedule even as I struggled to produce milk, deviating—begrudgingly—only when the pediatrician suggested that I supplement with formula to help my daughter gain weight.
According to James J. McKenna, a professor of anthropology and the director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab at the University of Notre Dame, it’s a common idea in Western parenting that parents should restrict their infants’ feeding behaviors. This idea has little to do with babies’ biological well-being, he says; rather, it developed as a safeguard against raising spoiled children whose parents schedule around their whims.
The argument stems in part from the 1928 book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, written by the American psychologist John B. Watson. In it, Watson warns against the inevitable dangers of a mother providing too much love and affection, and overly comforting children. By that logic, “comfort feeding”—breastfeeding babies to soothe them, even if they aren’t hungry—is asking for problems down the line.
“Infants don’t have wants. ‘Wants’ assumes a more advanced cognitive awareness. Infants only have needs.”
But the argument doesn’t line up with their cognitive development, McKenna explains. “Infants don’t have wants. ‘Wants’ assumes a more advanced cognitive awareness,” he says. “Infants only have needs. There’s a big difference.”
“Western psychology was never kind to our infants,” he adds. “We’ve departed from natural behaviors and have given moral meaning to the recommended practices that have no science to back them up.”
Parents around the world have used some form of the pacifier for centuries. Depending on the time and place, they’ve been made of knotted rags dipped in water or honey, wooden beads, coral, ivory, bone, mango seeds, and plastic. Today, as The New York Times has reported, an estimated 75 percent of Western babies use pacifiers.
In some cultures, though, the caretaker is the pacifier. For example, the Aka, a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers living in the Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo, share comfort-nursing duties. The anthropologist Barry J. Hewlett, the editor of Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods: Evolutionary, Developmental, and Cultural Perspectives, says that Aka babies are breastfed an average of four times an hour, and sometimes as often as seven. During early infancy, babies are typically held 95 percent of the time; in late infancy, that number drops to 60 to 75 percent of the time. They are usually carried on the mother’s side, leaving the breast readily available for the infant to take when needed. If the mother is busy, the baby is typically passed to someone else, often the father or grandmother, who will offer up their own nipples to soothe the child.
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