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The relationship between you and your baby in the early days and weeks of her life is centered around the feeding experience. It is often one of the most significant challenges facing mother and baby in the beginning of a child’s life. It is the first dance in a way. You and your baby are given the task of accomplishing something together that is absolutely vital for her growth and survival.

Your baby’s feeding process is intricately linked with her developing psyche. If there have been difficulties with sucking, problems with milk supply for whatever reason, or frustration and mutual distress around feeding, this could possibly be associated in some way with psychological struggles later on. Feeding difficulties are exceptionally stressful for both you and your baby. Hunger is acutely uncomfortable and greatly distressing for a small baby, and an inadequate supply of milk is likely to be experienced as traumatic.

A smooth and easy early breast-feeding relationship is very strengthening for a baby’s developing psyche. It forms an essential part of the beginnings of psychological growth. It also forms the basis of relating to others later on.

Breast versus bottle
You will probably have gathered by now that breast is best. The health benefits are enormous and the psychological benefits are just as good. You might feel extreme sadness and disillusionment if you are not able to breast-feed. Fortunately, formula and bottles is a good enough substitute and most babies are relieved to be offered a bottle after a frustratingly unsuccessful attempt at breast-feeding.

Parent tips for breast-feeding

  • rooming in with your newborn baby in the hospital is a good idea for getting the breast-feeding going
  • only let the nursing staff give your newborn baby complementary feeds in the nursery if it is medically indicated. Ask your pediatrician’s advice
  • breast-feeding is about supply and demand. The more you breast-feed, the more breast-milk will be produced
  • put your baby on the breast or express breast-milk if you want to stimulate a greater supply of milk
  • if the baby doesn’t suck, the breast won’t produce milk after a few days

Useful baby info
A hungry baby is an unhappy, stressed out baby. The more you let your baby feed, the more milk will be produced. Don’t withhold feeds in the beginning unless there is a medical reason for it.

Your baby’s experience of hunger
Hunger is highly distressing for your young baby. I do not believe for the most part that it is psychologically strengthening to expect your hungry, crying baby to wait until a scheduled time before feeding her. This is particularly true for a very young infant.  A hungry baby is hungry now. Not in half an hour’s time and often not at a time that is very convenient. However, in many circles rigid four hourly feeding schedules are still adhered to. 

Most psychoanalytic clinicians believe that forcing a hungry baby to wait for a feed  because it is too early for its scheduled time to feed causes extreme stress and rage in the infant. It also creates unnecessary and perhaps destructive conflict between mother and baby. This is especially true for young babies under three or four months of age. As your baby grows she becomes more and more able to tolerate frustration and she develops some understanding of and control over her impulses. Only then should you bring in your own agenda and time-schedules for feeding. Battles between you and your baby over feeding during the early weeks and months of life present are very stressful for your baby.

Sometimes your baby will have psychological wobbles. She will feel like she is falling apart. Your job in the beginning is to show her how regulate herself or to put herself together again.  The breast, bottle or dummy is often the solution, because sucking helps a baby to feel soothed. So you are not wrong when you offer the breast or the bottle to your crying baby, even when she is not hungry. The sucking experience in itself is psychologically beneficial at this stage of development.

Being in the oral phase of psychological development, your baby needs to feed and suck. This is what your baby cares about and where her mind is. Remember also during the oral phase, your baby needs to learn about trust. You are the person most likely to teach that lesson of trust. Feed your baby when she is hungry and try to keep her as comfortable as possible. Your continued presence, your responsiveness to her, and your supply of milk (breast or bottle) all contribute to making your baby feel safe. This builds trust.

An adapted version of an extract of Babies in Mind (Double Storey)
by Jenny Perkel