There are many benefits to breastfeeding, for both moms and babies. Usually, we focus on the health benefits for mom and baby. However, one of the most incredible benefits of breastfeeding is the ways that it can promote bonding between mother and baby. If you are teaching parents about breastfeeding, this is one aspect that it makes sense to emphasize, especially because bonding is usually something breastfeeding moms can experience in more immediate and tangible ways.
Still, bonding and breastfeeding is a bit of a complicated topic, especially if you don’t bond with your baby right away, or if breastfeeding doesn’t work out for you. That’s why it’s important to tackle this topic with sensitivity and compassion.
Here are some ideas for how to teach new parents about the impact of breastfeeding on bonding.
Establish a Judgement Free Zone
Mothers tend to come into breastfeeding with many personal feelings, biases, concerns, and “baggage.” Maybe they’ve heard that breastfeeding is too hard, and that issues like sore nipples and low milk supply are inevitable. Maybe their own mother didn’t breastfeed and they are worried they will follow the same path. Maybe they have a history of sexual abuse and the idea of breastfeeding is triggering. Maybe they are excited to breastfeed but are anxious that it might not work out and they’d then be a “bad mom.” Or maybe they have nothing but positive feelings about breastfeeding and are raring to go.
It's normal for mothers to have a myriad of feelings about breastfeeding, and one of the best things you can do is emphasize that your class is judgment-free zone—meaning that it’s okay to be honest about your feelings, that each mother’s perspective is valuable, and that there are no “stupid” questions when it comes to breastfeeding.
Allow Participants to Share Thoughts, Experiences and Concerns
With the above point in mind, it can be helpful to start a session on breastfeeding and bonding with a brainstorm session. You can ask participants to write down a list of words that come to mind when you say “breastfeeding and bonding” and then have them share these words. You can also pair them off, or place them in small groups, and ask them to brainstorm. Either way, starting with a brainstorm can allow participants to air out their feelings and share any concerns.
Discuss the Science Behind Breastfeeding and Bonding
In the same way that there is solid evidence about how breastfeeding protects the health and well being of both moms and babies, there is evidence-based information about how breastfeeding promotes bonding. You can share this with your students.
Here are a few pieces of information you might consider sharing, with links to studies:
- When mothers breastfeed, two main hormones are released: prolactin and oxytocin; both of these hormones promote bonding and also help to relax mothers.
- Research shows that mothers who breastfeed tend to be more responsive to their babies and also tend to touch and hold their babies more frequently.
- A longitudinal study found that breastfeeding for a longer duration was linked to increased maternal responsiveness, attachment security, and lowered risk of attachment disorganization when babies were 14 months old.
- There is evidence that the bonding established between breastfed babies and their mothers lasts for years, beyond the infant and toddler period.
Share Steps Mothers Can Take to Enhance Bonding While Breastfeeding
In and of itself, breastfeeding can promote bonding in moms and babies. Breastfeeding requires close contact, frequent touch and holding, and is a symbiotic relationship where mom’s bodies respond to their babies needs and cries. You can share funny and endearing stories of how moms will literally leak milk when their babies cry or when it’s feeding time!
Still, there are things that moms can do to strengthen this bond further. These tips also help to promote breastfeeding and ensure its success:
- Spend time skin-to-skin with baby whenever possible, even when you aren’t nursing; to do this, strip baby down to their diaper, place them on your chest, and use a blanket to cover the both of you if your baby seems cold.
- “Room in” with your baby at the hospital or birthing facility for frequent feeding and so that you can respond quickly to your baby’s hunger cues.
- When you are home, consider having your baby sleep in your room with you; this helps you learn your baby’s hunger cues, feed frequently, bond, and respond quickly to their fusses and cries.
Explain That Bonding Doesn’t Have a Timeline
Many mothers think that as soon as their baby is placed in their arms, they will automatically fall in love with their baby. This certainly happens often, but sometimes bonding is more of a process. Some mothers take a few weeks to bond and fall in love with their babies, especially if they had a difficult birth or experienced initial breastfeeding challenges. Normalizing that bonding is different for everyone and that it’s ok if it takes time to bond, can be enormously helpful to mothers who don’t bond with their babies right away.
Talk About Bonding When Breastfeeding Doesn’t Work Out
As we all know, sometimes breastfeeding doesn’t work out. While you can emphasize how important getting early and prompt help for breastfeeding is—and provide mothers with local recommendations for help and support—sometimes breastfeeding simply doesn’t work. This may be because of an underlying medical condition in a mom or baby, lack of family support, or a rapid return to work that made it difficult to establish or maintain breastfeeding.
Whatever the case, when breastfeeding doesn’t work, one major source of guilt for moms is that they think not breastfeeding means that they won’t properly bond with their babies. In your class, you should certainly emphasize the ways that breastfeeding promotes bonding, but it can be helpful to note that breastfeeding isn’t the only way to promote bonding. If bottle feeding becomes necessary—either part time or full-time—mothers can still bond with their babies by holding their babies frequently, doing skin-to-skin, feeding on demand/in response to feeding cues, and being emotionally present with their babies while feeding.
End on a Positive Note
End the class on a positive note, reviewing the ways that breastfeeding can promote bonding and tips for deepening your bond with your baby during breastfeeding. You might want to circle back to the first exercise you did where you asked participants to share their thoughts and feelings about what breastfeeding and bonding means to them. You can ask them to share new thoughts on this, after having reflected and learned more about the topic.
Be sure to check out Plumtree Baby's breastfeeding resources for teaching guides and parent handouts to support your clients on their breastfeeding journeys.
Wendy Wisner, Freelance Writer and Lactation Consultant (IBCLC)
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