mom kissing babyThere’s a lot of talk about the importance of secure attachment. We mostly hear of it in two circles: adult relationships and parenting, especially of adopted or foster children. We’re hearing more of it in parenting at large, mainly through organizations like Attachment Parenting International. But for the most part, the importance of individual attachment style continues to be downplayed. After all, we all grew up “just fine,” right?

As a breastfeeding educator, I am continually wowed by the progress made over the past several decades of not only promoting mothers to breastfeed their infants but also of encouraging the medical community to embrace the practice that was once touted by post-World War II doctors as the “poor woman’s way of feeding her children,” second to the “superiority” of “modernization,” of formula. It is now well known what nature has always known, that breast is indeed best when it comes to feeding our babies.

Breastfeeding is unique in that it not only delivers superior nutrition and health factors to our infants, as well as benefits mothers’ health in the long term, but also that it promotes a secure attachment relationship between mother and baby. We don’t hear about this much, because our medical community hasn’t yet completely acknowledged that how our brains work—the psychology of it all—is actually a biological, physical function of our body. And so, right now, the medical community is pretty much just interested in communicating the importance of the nutrition and health factors of breastmilk.

The fact remains that the act of breastfeeding provides benefits in itself apart from the benefits of breastmilk, which can be mostly delivered through expressed milk fed through a bottle.

(I say mostly because there is scientific evidence that components of breastmilk change throughout the day to match the unique needs of the child and these daily changes would then be lost when the baby is fed milk pumped out the day or week or month before.)

The act of breastfeeding provides the relationship foundation for the mother-child bond, and therefore the foundation for the child’s attachment security and future mental health as an adult. And there is now increasing evidence that our mental health—rooted in this attachment quality that forms in the first three years of a human’s life—is directly related to our physical health. Really, it all ties together.

So it makes sense that we—parents, mental health professionals, the medical community, policy makers, etc.—take breastfeeding seriously.

(This isn’t to say that children of women who are unable to breastfeed are doomed to insecure attachment. Breastfeeding just makes it easier, because there’s a natural give-and-take in the process. The mother needs to stay attuned and learn to accurately read her baby’s cues for when to breastfeed, whether when hungry or for comfort, and baby in turn learns to read his mother’s cues and stay attuned to her. The nurturing touch, the eye contact, the active listening and other subtle—but oh so important—relationship skills are easier to put aside when baby gets nourishment from a detached, plastic bottle of milk and comfort from a detached, plastic pacifier or lovey. As a mother who fed all three of her babies from a bottle at some point, it’s definitely easier to breastfeed and maintain a strong bond with baby, but it can be done with a bottle/pacifier, if done conscientiously.)

And in taking breastfeeding seriously, we also need to take baby’s and mother’s nighttime needs seriously. The LA Times has reported on a recent study that points out that cosleeping promotes longer duration of breastfeeding. This is kind of a duh moment for many successfully breastfeeding mothers, but it is controversial because bedsharing can carry risks with it. To keep it safe, though, it’s as basic as keeping to these safe infant sleep guidelines. Note that breastfeeding is the integral part of keeping cosleeping safe, because mother’s hormones while breastfeeding work differently than a mother’s hormones when not breastfeeding and this affects her state of arousal and awareness of baby’s position and breathing.

To date, the medical community and others have been starkly against cosleeping because unsafe bedsharing conditions are not, well, safe. But this study helps illustrate that breastfeeding—something so highly touted as best for baby—cannot be so easily unraveled from other mother-infant interactions, that we can’t tell moms to breastfeed on one hand but ignore that there is a definite link between cosleeping and breastfeeding success on the other hand.

What the anti-cosleeping community continually ignores is that there is value in educating parents on safe ways to breastfeed at night, which includes setting up the sleeping environment just in case the breastfeeding mother falls asleep. That way, even if the mother wasn’t intending on falling asleep while breastfeeding, if she does, it’s safe for her baby. And there is plenty of research outlining what is safe or not.

So basically it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, black or white. There is a middle ground and we can find it. You can be pro-breastfeeding and not pro-cosleeping, yet value breastfeeding enough to educate mothers on safe cosleeping, just in case. That middle ground is recognizing the importance of education and helping parents to be proactive, yet not compromising breastfeeding or all of its myriad benefits, including baby’s developing secure attachment.