Breastfeeding- an early learning and montessori perspective

The first montessori book I read, although a bestseller,was unfortunately not written by Maria Montessori herself. I remember pausing at a paragraph that suggested solids be started for the infant at 3 months, and they be completely weaned off breastfeeding by 9 months.

Disclaimer- I have been asked time and again, if breastfeeding helps in early learning in any way and if it is, montessori. This article is a result of the ensuing research and reflection, for World Breastfeeding Week. The intention of this post is to initiate conversations on breastfeeding for WBW, which is why only this is mentioned in great detail.

The maternal duty of suckling her own children, prescribed to mothers by hygienists, is based on a physiological principle: the mother’s milk nourishes an infant more perfectly than any other.

Maria Montessori

A simple Google search will give any of us the gigantic list of benefits breastfeeding has, for both, the mother and child- physically and emotionally. And as a second time mum of a newborn, I have a lot of personal emotions attached to this topic. However, here, I’d like to bring to light the role of breastfeeding in early education and development.

Biological perspective

Needless to say, breast milk is custom made for the child as she suckles. There are many specific antibodies that are transferred, and breast-fed babies are said to be at lower risk for allergies.

The baby does receive many antibodies during pregnancy, but that does not help the child once she is exposed to germs in the environment after birth, unless there is a regular supply from breast milk in the early days.

I also find it absolutely fascinating, how the mammals went ahead and evolved a whole new organ to nurture their children. That colostrum is produced only after the placenta has been delivered. Or that prolactin is produced when the baby suckles, enabling production of milk. That certain components of breast milk (like taurine, for instance) cannot be found in animal milk. Or simply how, breastmilk in the evening contains more tryptophan to help children sleep better at night. This delicate dance of stimuli, hormones and finally milk makes it unique.

Sensory perspective

The child will receive not only the food to satisfy his hunger but also the loving presence of the mother.  He will be offered information as to how to fill an empty stomach and how to enjoy a human relationship with its many sensory inputs (such as a face to observe, a voice to listen to, the warmth of bodily contact), which become food for the mind.” 

Dr. Silvana Montanaro, Understanding the Human Being

When a child is nursing, she needs to be held in a particular way. It requires us to recognize her feelings and respond to it. Slowly the child learns to differentiate between being held for intimacy and love, and being held for food. She also learns love and affection, and how to respond.

Physiological perspective

Research says that breast-fed children perform better on logic and IQ tests. But I’m still divided on that, simply because there are too many factors contributing to the many types of intelligences.
However, suckling does help a child optimally develop her jaw and vocal chords, thus setting the base for language development.
Because breastfeeding involves switching sides for every feed (or so), it also helps develop a child’s vision.

A foundation for every interaction

Feeding is the single, most repetitive interaction, a baby has with a human, in the early days. And this not only helps her understand a prenatal point of reference, but sets the base for all other interactions.

Every time, she is nursed, she understands that her needs are important and heard. That they will be attended to safely in this environment.

When she is taken near the breast and she opens her mouth to suckle, she realises what hunger is and how she can satiate it. She has to actively work her jaw muscles to suckle, teaching her cause and effect.

Everytime she is allowed to suckle for as long as she wants, whenever ( and only when) she wants, she learns respect for her own body.

And my favorite part of nursing- when she satiates her hunger and coos or smiles at her mother, she is practising social interaction in the earliest form. Her tummy is full. Her biological needs are met. She hears the mother’s heartbeat, feels the warmth in the touch and cuddles. Her psychological needs are met as well. That moment when she smiles or coos or interacts, teaches her that there is joy in human interaction beyond the basic needs, and sets the base for all social interactions.

Breastfeeding and comfort feeding

When a mother is feeding her child, she is not only giving milk. Now biologists have stumbled upon a deeper fact, they say she is feeding energy.

Osho, The Book of children

A lot has been said about ensuring that a baby is fed only when hungry- not by any clock or not for every cry. And it is true- many times babies cry because of sensory deprivation, because it is too hot or cold, because they are sleepy, etc. Hence it is important that the response to any and every discomfort is not stuffing food into the child. Research has shown, that this can cause lasting effects in the way human beings respond to food.

But then again, it is also important to remember that breastfeeding satisfies both nutritional as well as psychological needs. The maternal warmth, attention and love associated with nursing has helped us immensely after tantrums, bruised knees and meltdowns.

Breastfeeding and montessori

“Another point is the custom of prolonging the period of maternal feeding. This has nothing to do with the child’s nutritional needs, because for some time he has been able to assimilate other kinds of food; but prolonged lactation requires the mother to remain with her child, and this satisfies her unconscious need to give her offspring the help of a full social life on which to construct his mind. “

Many montessori books and interpretations suggest weaning early. But breastfeeding with a free timetable involves being attuned to the child’s needs, following her cues, and being involved during feeding. Also, let me reinforce that Maria Montessori was a doctor, educator and a fierce advocate of women’s rights.
Although she isn’t here to clarify, I would like to think that breastfeeding is more montessori aligned than one thinks.

It is also obvious, that breastfeeding is much more than just nutrition. Most of these needs can be met while pumping or with a secondary care-giver. Breast-milk is liquid gold. But feeding a child is so much more.

People ask me if I believe in “breast is best” or “fed is best” all the time.

I wish I had more people believing I could breastfeed when I had my first child. When V had weight gain issues, I wish pediatricians had not suggested solids. I wish random strangers had not commented or questioned my milk supply. When V2 was formula fed without consent after birth, and I requested the nurse to not repeat it, I wish she had not rolled her eyes at me. I had to tell her that V was exclusively breastfed for 6 months and she gently weaned herself around 2.5 years of age. Informed choice is always the best.

One comment

  1. Hema Madhunikha KR says:

    The last paragraph truly struck a chord. I am new to the Montessori way of living. But I was also constantly questioned about when I am weaning off. All sorts of tips and tricks where flowing without being asked. Deep down in my bone I knew that my little one will let me know. And it happened one day,though I felt depraved a little,felt grateful that I was able to be with my little one in this breastfeeding journey.

    He is weaned off now and is 2.8 years old. And I was completely surprised when I came to know that Montessori is about ” Follow the child”. Great article. Kudos.

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