Breastfeeding (and Bottlefeeding) Teaches Body Language

Are you paying attention?

Mammals are called mammals because our newborns nurse.  Humans babies, though, don’t just latch on and eat up.  No. They stop and look around, sigh, and the nursing mom will stroke the baby’s cheek or jiggle him or remind him of what he’s doing and the baby will start to nurse again.

I designate this nursing baby as a “him” because that’s pretty much my son nursed — whether on my breast or when we gave him a supplemental bottle.  My daughter, she was usually more focused when it came to meal time, no matter its format. Either way, by getting held close and attended to in feeding, psychologists suggest my kids were learning the basics of turn taking, a basic element of child development the foundation of conversation.

Actually, “psychologists” only discuss this in relation to breastfeeding.  I’m suggesting that it’s a function of bottle feeding as well.

Over on the NPR Cosmos and Culture blog Alva Noe writes:

“Psychologist Kenneth Kaye has learned that human care givers (“mothers” for short) respond to the baby’s interruption in sucking by gently rocking the child, so coaxing it back to the business at hand. According to Kaye and others, mothers everywhere do this spontaneously, even if they have received no special instruction. And baby responds by resuming its consumption.”

So we as moms naturally encourage our kids to eat, and sometimes our kids stop eating, and so we draw them back to what they’re doing. It goes, back and forth, just like the “Hi, how are yous” of conversation. Babies aren’t learning language, but they’re learning the body language of having a talk.

Of course, it’s easy to romanticize the nursing experience (and Noe does), assuming a perpetually and perfectly calibrated relationship between mom and baby (or babies, in my case, because I nursed and bottlefed twins).

The romantic version goes something like this: Mom’s always tuned in. Baby is always agreeable. Mom’s always patient when baby loses interest. Mom and baby learn give and take through the wonder of breastfeeding.

In real life, when a baby takes a break at the breast, a mom sometimes gets frustrated.  And a baby being bottle fed can be just as connected with the person giving the bottle as a nursing child.

Still, the interactivity, the lovely, lovely interactivity of feeding a baby can’t be denied. It doesn’t always happen that mom, or person with bottle, and baby are tuned in to each other. But when they are, it only makes sense that the nurturing and sustaining act of feeding during which a baby is held close and demands attention teaches humans about body language and the give and take that’s at the foundation of all of our relationships.

Do you think a baby learns about conversation at mealtime?

photo credit: help4new

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