The Taboo of Being a Human Pacifier

A mother’s thoughts on the complicated politics of "comfort feeding,” or breastfeeding on demand


One of the first pieces of advice I received as a new mother was to never let my baby use me as a pacifier. I took this advice to heart, resolving to keep my daughter on an ironclad feeding schedule: once every two hours, 20 minutes on each side, so regular that I may as well have asked her to punch in and out at each shift.

Even with these strict self-imposed limits, breastfeeding was more of a commitment than I had anticipated. For the next few weeks I barely left the house so that I could remain topless and layered with lanolin salves. I was so sore that even the spray from the showerhead made me wince. But I powered through and stuck to the schedule even as I struggled to produce milk, deviating—begrudgingly—only when the pediatrician suggested that I supplement with formula to help my daughter gain weight.

According to James J. McKenna, a professor of anthropology and the director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab at the University of Notre Dame, it’s a common idea in Western parenting that parents should restrict their infants’ feeding behaviors. This idea has little to do with babies’ biological well-being, he says; rather, it developed as a safeguard against raising spoiled children whose parents schedule around their whims.

The argument stems in part from the 1928 book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, written by the American psychologist John B. Watson. In it, Watson warns against the inevitable dangers of a mother providing too much love and affection, and overly comforting children. By that logic, “comfort feeding”—breastfeeding babies to soothe them, even if they aren’t hungry—is asking for problems down the line.

But the argument doesn’t line up with their cognitive development, McKenna explains. “Infants don’t have wants. ‘Wants’ assumes a more advanced cognitive awareness,” he says. “Infants only have needs. There’s a big difference.”

“Western psychology was never kind to our infants,” he adds. “We’ve departed from natural behaviors and have given moral meaning to the recommended practices that have no science to back them up.”

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Parents around the world have used some form of the pacifier for centuries. Depending on the time and place, they’ve been made of knotted rags dipped in water or honey, wooden beads, coral, ivory, bone, mango seeds, and plastic. Today, as The New York Times has reported, an estimated 75 percent of Western babies use pacifiers.

In some cultures, though, the caretaker is the pacifier. For example, the Aka, a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers living in the Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo, share comfort-nursing duties. The anthropologist Barry J. Hewlett, the editor of Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods: Evolutionary, Developmental, and Cultural Perspectives, says that Aka babies are breastfed an average of four times an hour, and sometimes as often as seven. During early infancy, babies are typically held 95 percent of the time; in late infancy, that number drops to 60 to 75 percent of the time. They are usually carried on the mother’s side, leaving the breast readily available for the infant to take when needed. If the mother is busy, the baby is typically passed to someone else, often the father or grandmother, who will offer up their own nipples to soothe the child.

According to the anthropologist Gwen Dewar, a close, hands-on approach probably existed much of human history—but modern Western industrialized societies have trained their babies to accept less physical responsiveness. Even the most affectionate of parents often soothe babies in non-physical ways—with talk, smiles, or stimulating distractions. The pacifier, Dewar explains, is an example of this, allowing babies “to experience the soothing effects of sucking in the absence of hands-on … care.”

According to Jennifer Harned Adams, a psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive health, a reliance on comfort nursing may cause some women to feel a loss of bodily autonomy, as they spend significant amounts of time engaged in this very physical task. “For some women, this may impact their interest in intimacy, or even change her relationship with her body if her breasts are no longer a sexual part,” Adams says. “For others, comfort nursing may lead to a perceived loss of identity outside of motherhood.”

On the other hand, she says, women who have experienced difficulties with body image, or have experienced prior sexual assault, can find that comfort nursing helps them to create a new, positive relationship with their bodies. For new mothers especially, using their body as a soothing mechanism can also help women become more confident in their relationship to their babies. “This can help her feel … solid in her role as a new mother,” Adams says, and “can provide mothers with quiet moments in the midst of the chaotic storm of early parenting.”

The choice of whether or not to breastfeed can come with its own complicated set of politics, and comfort feeding is no different. Unlike in Aka society, where women comfort feed without a second thought, women in Western cultures who choose to do so are often met with resistance: Beyond the idea of the spoiled child, there’s also the notion that a woman is tethering herself to her baby at the expense of her own well-being.

The bottom line, though, is that comfort feeding—like breastfeeding more broadly—is still a personal choice, despite what mothers have been socially conditioned to choose. After I was forced to throw out my daughter’s original feeding regimen, I came to realize that breastfeeding on demand felt right. I ditched the plastic binky along with the schedule. And when she was fussy for reasons other than hunger, I did as the Aka do, and became a human pacifier.