Disclaimer – I am talking about babies born with no ongoing medical issues that may affect their ability to feed or energy requirements.
“Bottle feeding is easier (uses less energy) than breastfeeding”
I have heard this from a few clients and colleagues recently so I thought I would post my thoughts and observations on the subject.
I have always struggled with this idea – if breastfeeding is the biological norm, and our species has survived for millennia, why would a man-made invention be easier? I have learned the truth to this over the last few years and the answer is it is not easier, but rather our perception of what is easier, and our interpretation of newborn behaviour, is wrong.
First let me ask you this – what is the most important substance an animal needs to survive? I imagine some of you may say something related to food or water….but the answer is actually oxygen. Bodily tissues start to die within 3 minutes of being deprived of oxygen (even if you are a fish, you still need to filter oxygen from the water, which is done via the gills 😉).
Humans, like most land animals, breathe air into their lungs to get this oxygen. Only air can enter lungs – to get fluid or food into the lungs can cause major issues.
The second most important substance for animals is food (ie proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, etc) and water. Mammal babies get all this from milk, and the majority of mammal babies suck milk from a mammary gland (mammary gland = mammal).
In humans the tube that accepts air and food start out as one and the same - the pharynx. The pharynx then separates into the trachea, which leads to the lungs, and the oesophagus, which leads to the stomach. The epiglottis and larynx stop food or water from entering the lungs – these structures close over when we swallow to block off the trachea.
So the 2 most important tasks a mammal baby needs to do well from birth are breathing and sucking/swallowing.
With me so far?
Now, picture feeding a baby with a bottle – how would you do this? I imagine most of you would lie the baby down in your arms, put the bottle over the baby’s mouth and push the teat in.
In human babies the reflex to suck on something placed in their mouth is very strong - because, apart from breathing, feeding is key to survival. When they suck on the bottle teat they get fluid, plus some ‘falls’ into their mouth by gravity.
Remember, what is the most important function of an animal? (Hint: oxygen is key to survival).
So in order to protect their airway and not breathe the fluid in, they have to swallow it.
And the more they suck, the more fluid they swallow, so the amount in the bottle goes down.
Society tells us that babies will only take milk when they want it - so if we think the baby is hungry and they have sucked and swallowed the milk from the bottle – they must have wanted it, right? But if it is a reflex to suck on something that is put in their mouth – are they actually hungry or are they just reacting to the stimulus….
Society also tells us that a ‘good baby’ is one who eats and sleeps - so if they have taken the milk in a relatively short period of time (5-10mins) and fallen asleep, then that’s good, isn’t it?
Now let’s look at breastfeeding.
A baby has to latch in a particular way to the breast in order to transfer a good amount of milk. They need to take enough breast into their mouth so that their tongue is well placed under the breast. The front part of the tongue lifts the breast to the hard palate to push milk out. The back portion of the tongue lowers and creates a vacuum to suck so milk out. The suckling motion on the breast stimulates the mother release oxytocin, which helps release milk from the ducts in the breast.
Except that a baby may also suck on the breast for comfort, not just to get milk. Remember, sucking is the most finely honed skill a baby has – so it is the only skill they have to comfort themselves. They can suck at the breast in such a way that it is just for comfort, not to get out milk. But they can’t do this with a bottle, because chances are milk will flow out regardless of what they do.
Plus babies are usually breastfed in a side-lying or prone position (ie them lying on their front, on top of the