pBreastfeeding is one way to feed your child and provide them with the nutrients they need to grow, but oftentimes, the breastfeeding relationship extends beyond its functionality as mealtime. For babies (and sometimes even for moms), nursing can be a ritual that feels soothing and relaxing enough to lead to sleep. Babies don’t always reach for the breast because they want to eat — sometimes they just want to feel their parent is as close to them as possible. This is often referred to as nursing for comfort, or comfort nursing. It can be easy to get into a pattern or habit of comfort nursing, especially if you don’t know how to tell if baby is eating or comfort nursing.
Discerning the difference can be necessary, especially as your babe grows older. As sweet as these comfort nursing moments can be, it can get a little overwhelming if nursing sessions last for too long. Breastfeeding can feel like a full-time job, and it’s normal to feel like you need a break. If your newborn is finding a lot of comfort in nursing, then chances are good they’re going to want to do it more and more — which can get exhausting and even feel claustrophobic. Some moms are hesitant about their babies getting into a habit of using nursing sessions as their main way to relax or fall asleep. Knowing how to tell if they just need a little extra love or if they’re hungry can be really helpful.
Why do babies nurse for comfort?
Nursing sessions can be extremely soothing for your newborn, especially in the first few months of their life. Think about it from their point of view: They’re pressed up against you, with comforting skin-to-skin contact, and they get to eat at the same time. What could be better?
It also makes sense scientifically. “When a baby breastfeeds, the hormone oxytocin is released in both the breastfeeding parent and baby's brains,” explains Chrisie Rosenthal, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). “Oxytocin has been dubbed ‘the love hormone’ as it promotes feelings of attachment and relaxation.” Basically, nursing is also a bonding session that can leave your little one feeling adored and happy.
How to tell if baby is hungry or comfort nursing
It can be hard to discern the difference between the need to comfort feed and the need to actually eat. As a parent, you never want to feel like you’re not meeting your baby’s needs, so it’s natural to want to nurse them if they’re making it clear that that’s what they want to do. That said, there are ways to tell if baby is hungry or just looking to breastfeed for comfort.
The most obvious way to tell if your baby is actually hungry or not is to observe their sucking pattern when they feed. There are two types of sucking that are typically seen in babies, according to Kate Arquilla, certified lactation consultant and former NICU nurse. Nutritive sucking is when the baby latches to the breast and activates the milk ejection reflex. “A normal nutritive sucking pattern is suck, suck, suck, swallow, breathe, pause,” Arquilla explains. “This pattern is a sign that the baby is actually drinking milk. The pauses seen here can last 30-60 seconds as the baby breathes and recovers.”
The other type of sucking is called non-nutritive sucking, and it usually happens at the end of a breastfeeding session when baby is full or ready to switch sides, or if they’re not as hungry. “The sucking pattern with non-nutritive sucking is suck, suck, suck, pause, breathe,” Arquilla says. “Usually these sucks are quicker and less powerful because they are not drawing out enough milk to swallow and therefore are called non-nutritive.”
Figuring out which type of sucking your baby is doing requires some time to observe their patterns while breastfeeding. Really pay attention to the way your baby is eating and you’ll likely begin to notice the difference between comfort nursing and nursing because they’re hungry.
You should also look for both hunger cues and sleepy cues, and as Arquilla points out, this can be tricky because they’re often similar. Hungry cues include, according to Arquilla:
- Rooting with a strong, nutritive suck
- Sucks on hands or fists
- Calm and wide eyed after a nap
- Crying (this is a late hunger cue)
Sleepy cues — cues that could indicate baby just wants to comfort nurse — include:
- Sucks hands or fists at the end of a wake window
- Red eyebrows/rubbing eyes
- Quiet, staring into space
- Arching, pulling at ears
- Rooting with a light suckle at the breast
- Crying, which could mean they’re overtired
Noticing and discerning between these signs can also take some observation.
Ways to comfort baby if they are not hungry
If you suspect your newborn is just nursing for comfort, there are other ways to provide that aside from nursing. One that’s similar to the feeling of nursing is swaddling, which Arquilla recommends. “If your baby is under 16 weeks and not independently rolling, a great way to comfort your baby is to swaddle them tightly,” she says. “Babies have a startle reflex, or the Moro reflex, until about 12-16 weeks, which can help be diminished by the swaddle.”
If what your baby wants is that sucking motion, Arquilla recommends offering them a pacifier. “Sucking, including non-nutritive sucking, helps calm baby, decrease heart rate, and brings a sense of relaxation,” she says.
If you’re concerned that pacifier use will turn them off from breastfeeding, she notes that there is no evidence that pacifiers cause lower breastfeeding rates, as per a 2022 study. “In fact, pacifiers are linked to less incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS),” she notes. If you really don’t want to use a pacifier, you can offer your clean finger.
There are a lot of other ways to offer comfort. Baby wearing, going for a walk, rocking them, cuddling them, or singing to them are all options Rosenthal recommends. Try different things, and after a while you’ll know what your baby likes the most.
Is comfort nursing a bad habit?
Comfort nursing is not an inherently bad habit to get into. “There is no need to avoid comfort nursing if it is working for you and your baby,” Arquilla says. “Please make sure you are following safe sleep guidelines.”
That said, if you want your baby to comfort nurse less, there’s nothing wrong with trying other comfort mechanisms or giving your newborn to someone else to hold for a while so you can get some rest. If breastfeeding is getting painful or uncomfortable, Rosenthal says you may want to limit it to nutritive feedings only. “Although breastfeeding can sometimes feel like a superpower that calms a cranky, tired baby, it’s not the only way to provide comfort,” she says. “It’s up to you to decide.”
In the end, do what works for you and your family. There is no harm in comfort nursing if you and your newborn baby are happy with those long, lazy sessions. However, there’s also no harm in teaching them how to be comforted by things besides your breasts.
Kate Arquilla of Bumble Baby, former NICU nurse and certified lactation consultant with Tommee Tippee