In addition to meeting the basic physiological need of nourishment, feeding serves an important function in a child’s emotional development. When a child is fed, not only does instinctual gratification occur but the foundations of love, nurturance, trust, and a secure attachment are made.
The way a caregiver is typically able to tell whether or not babies need something is by their crying. Infants express frustration, sadness, upset, etc. through crying and usually become settled once their needs are met. When a baby’s need to be fed is met, he or she develops a sense that life and the experiences around him or her can be gratifying and satisfying. Consistent, loving, and predictable nurturance through feeding (or nursing, which is a word that truly embodies the connection between feeding and being cared for) teaches babies that they are valuable and that the important others in their lives are dependable. A positive sense of self emerges and they develop what developmental theorist Erik Erikson termed “basic trust.” The development of healthy senses of selves and secure attachments are key elements for children’s future relationships and overall life satisfaction.
Breastfeeding is considered the ideal form of feeding. Not only is breastfeeding good for health reasons but it demonstrates to babies the mothers’ active participation in their nourishment and satisfaction and they receive comfort in the warmth of the physical connection they derive from her. Of course, circumstances exist where breastfeeding is not possible or recommended for a caregiver, and a bottle is used as a substitute. Using bottles can have the same positive bonding effect as the breast, if utilized properly. The bottle should mimic, not replace, the physical and emotional exchange that takes place during the feeding process. Nursing a baby should include physical touch, eye gazing, soft and calm talking, etc. This can be done when feeding by breast or bottle. Because feeding is an important part of establishing a secure sense of self and building positive attachments, bottle propping is not advisable. Caregivers should hold and stay present with their babies when using a bottle. Other caregivers can even create these same boding experiences for infants by offering soothing touches, gazes, and words either while the infant is being breastfed or by bottle feeding the infant themselves.
Feeding infants should serve as a connecting experience between a child and a caregiver. Whether feeding takes place with a breast or a bottle, the child should feel the presence of the caregiver during this process. Nursing is about attending to the physical and emotional needs of the child and strengthening relationships. Feedings that are routinely distracted (e.g., being on phone or computer, etc.) may begin to lose some of the depth of the bonding experience. The bonding experience promotes children’s development of positive attachments with their parents and caretakers. Positive attachments and, thus, a strong, solid sense of self serve a child well throughout his or her lifetime.
Posted by Asya Brodsky, LSW, CADC
Colarusso, C. A. (1995). Child an Adult Development: A Psychoanalytic Introduction for Clinicians. New York: Plenum Press.