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Is Nipple Confusion a Myth?

What's the confusion?

My experience wasn't as singular as breastfeeding lore would have you believe. The decades-old term "nipple confusion" has been used to describe the threat that a breastfeeding baby who is offered a bottle too early will stop nursing because he prefers the bottle. In theory, the thinking seems sound: When nursing, a baby draws the nipple far back into his mouth and pumps milk out with his tongue. When taking a bottle, gravity lends a hand, so mouth position and tongue action aren't as vital. Simply put, drinking from a bottle is less work. Because of this, it's assumed that infants will find it hard to switch between the two.

But the reality is that most infants are much savvier than we give them credit for, especially when it comes to something as vital as nutrition. Anecdotally, plenty of moms and pediatricians will tell you that their babies can switch-hit fairly easily. In fact, a Babytalk poll found that 82 percent of breastfeeding babies were also able to drink from a bottle.

Infants who prefer the bottle to the breast probably aren't nursing well to begin with, says Marianne Neifert, M.D., a pediatrician based in Denver, Colorado, and the author of Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding. "These babies most likely aren't getting what they need from nursing: There may be a problem with latch-on or the mother's milk supply." Dr. Neifert suggests that the term "nipple preference" might be more accurate than "nipple confusion."

Still, like other seemingly sound, but ultimately unproven, parenting theories, nipple confusion continues to thrive in the minds of new parents. Over the years, the concept has gained such momentum that mothers who need to work, would love to go to a yoga class, or want to sleep for more than three hours at a stretch are terrified of giving their happily nursing child a bottle for fear she will never nurse again. The situation has become, to put it mildly, overblown. "People have become absolutely panicked about it," says Dr. Neifert.