by Katherine Dettwyler, PhD
Department of Anthropology,
Texas A and M University
I don't like this term because it juxtaposes itself to
"nutritive sucking" with the implication that "nutritive" sucking is
REAL sucking, and the other is not. It also carries with it the implication that the
main/only real purpose of breastfeeding is the transfer of nutrients. This is the message
the infant formula companies have been pushing all along -- breastfeeding is JUST a way to
feed your baby, and here's another which is better/as good/almost as good.
I don't think breastfeeding is "just" about
feeding the baby, any more than sex is "just" about creating babies.
Breastfeeding the baby does provide food, and water. It also provides immunological
factors, which may be what the baby is after (and why they nurse so often when sick, not
just for comfort). The process of breastfeeding itself also regulates the baby's
temperature and heart rate and lowers its blood pressure, and puts it to sleep. And then
of course there are all those important social and emotional factors going on during the
exchange. Dr. Blackburn's research on the evolution of mammary glands suggests that the
original purpose of "lacteal fluids" was to kill germs in the offspring's
gastro-intestinal tract and protect it from infections, and the nutritive components of
breast milk only evolved later.
As long as breastfeeding is seen as only or even primarily a
way to feed the baby, then bottle-feeding will be seen as equivalent or good enough
(IMHO). We need to really try to get away from this idea that if the sucking is
"non-nutritive" then it is optional, or can be replaced by a pacifier. I know
that's not what was said in the earlier post, but it is the way many people feel -- that
baby *shouldn't* want to nurse again, how could it *possibly* be hungry already? Well,
maybe this time it wants to nurse because it is cold or lonely or agitated or
sleepy/cranky. All of these are *equally* legitimate needs (once again, in my
A good point was made that mothers need to be able to
realize if milk transfer is not taking place, and they need to pay attention to output,
and they need to listen to their babies, and they may need someone to check their
latch-on, and keep track of the baby's weight, etc. I've criticized fellow anthropologists
who do "stop watch" research of time baby spends at breast without considering
a) how much, if any, milk transfer is taking place, and b) whether or not the mother is
lactating. I'm still nursing Alex, but I'm not lactating. So is he breastfeeding? It's
definitely non-nutritive, but does that make it not important?
At the same time, we really need to start teaching people
that breastfeeding is a multi-factorial, complex interaction between two people that has
ramifications for the child's nutritional status, to be sure, but also its ability to deal
with disease, its physiology, its emotional and cognitive development. I guess to me the
phrase "non-nutritive" just smacks of "non-important" or
"non-real" or "non-significant" even if it isn't meant that way.
Off of soapbox, on to lunchbox.
Prepared February 8, 1996.
Last updated April 15, 1999, by sak. Contents
copyright 1999 Sue Ann Kendall and Kathy Dettwyler.
Thanks to Prairienet, the Free-Net of
east-central Illinois, for hosting this site.
Return to the Kathy Dettwyler page.