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Psychological benefits of breastfeeding

Young fashion designer is visiting her workplace with her little daughterAn excerpt from Linda Kracht and Jackie Hilgert’s book, The Art of Breastfeeding.

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To many, the major benefit to breastfeeding is the emotional well-being it instills in both mother and child. A breastfeeding mother will slow down and give her child undivided attention many times each day. She’ll look into his eyes. She’ll talk to him. She’ll touch him and he will touch her. They connect in a unique way. This connection facilitated through breastfeeding provides baby with comfort — physically, emotionally and psychologically. It also contributes to his cognitive development.

In her book Cultural Breastfeeding, anthropologist Kathyrn Dettwyler draws a beautiful picture of the breastfeeding relationship:

The distance from the infant to the mother is perfect for the breastfeeding newborn to visualize her face. The closeness against the chest wall allows him to experience the maternal heartbeat, a familiar sound. The warmth of the lactating breast replaces the familiar warmth of the uterus.”

Breastfeeding builds a bond between mother and child and their closeness strengthens throughout the breastfeeding relationship; it is not easily lost once breastfeeding ceases. Some have called mothers and babies engaged in breastfeeding “mutual caregivers.” Baby receives care yet he also allows mother to reap important benefits, such as an increased confidence in her ability to make independent child-care decisions, and the ability to meet the demands of mothering while simultaneously enjoying motherhood. Babies rely on cradling, touch, smell, sounds, and movement to feel secure — even to survive. As babies age and gain independence, they develop curiosity and trust in the world around them. This is positive emotional growth stemming from the attachment that is fundamental to the art of breastfeeding. Early dependence and attachment fosters later independence. Yet the bond endures. Even children between the ages of fifteen and eighteen who were breastfed tend to remain appropriately attached to their parents.

The process of becoming and individual begins when baby realizes he is separate from his mother. The process unfolds slowly. Between eighteen months and thirty-six months, an older baby still very much needs his mother in order to feel secure. But, as he broadens his ability to recognize his existence separate from his mother, he will begin to tolerate brief periods of separation and his world will expand to include his father — also an important figure in his development. Together, mother and father hold baby’s best interests in perfect balance with their own; no one is left behind in a loving family. Each person’s needs are considered and accommodated to the best of their ability. Needs are placed above self; mother and father essentially die to self in order to raise their children.

Maria Montessori in her book The Absorbent Mind, writes: “Localized states of maturity must first be established and the effort to force the child’s natural development can only do harm. It is nature that directs.”

Family life gets busier as baby grows; often, a busy older baby must compete for his mother’s attention. Here again, there is value in continuing the breastfeeding relationship. Breastfeeding forces both mother and older baby to slow down. Through breastfeeding, an older baby gets the undivided attention he craves from his mother and she can use the time to relax, unwind, and focus on him.

Breastfeeding also can offer relief to babies who experience chronic pain or even sudden pain, such as from a vaccination or fall. You may thing the soothing effect found in breastfeeding is the result of him being distracted, but there are explanations rooted in science. Hormones released by suckling and absorption of milk fat induce relaxation and pain relief. Also the sweet milk stimulates a narcotic-like effect in the brain, decreasing the perception of pain. Finally, the skin-to-skin contact reduces stress and blood pressure, and helps stabilize body temperature and breathing rates.[1]

Continued breastfeeding also increases a child’s coping mechanism during stressful times. It further reduces his need to replace mother with an inanimate comfort object such as a blanket or toy. Psychological benefits to baby continue even after breastfeeding ceases.

For mother, the soothing effect of oxytocin released during breastfeeding has been noted by researchers to lead to a significantly lower incidence of child mistreatment or child neglect. Although research on the mechanisms of relaxation and analgesia has focused on newborns, these calming effects work synergistically; many mothers report these for the duration of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding confers other psychological benefits to women. Breastfeeding hormones help mothers avoid anger or negative moods, help them sleep better, and reduce stress which may result in feeling less depressed, a benefit enjoyed also by their babies.

For some women, however, depression is real; for these women, breastfeeding can be a helpful way to manage depression. A woman who needs medications to manage her depression is cautioned to closely consult with her physician as she pursues breastfeeding. By communicating her breastfeeding goals, her physician can help her avoid ingesting antidepressants that could harm her baby or reduce her milk supply. A physician committed to helping a woman succeed with breastfeeding despite her depression will acknowledge that breastfeeding can be a part of her treatment plan.

Medications aside, maternal depression has shown to produce abnormal brain patterns only in non-breastfeeding babies. Breastfeeding offers a protective effect from abnormal brain patterns in babies even if mother is depressed, another important benefits enjoyed through breastfeeding.


 Footnotes:

[1] Gribble, Karleen, Mental Health, Attachment and Breastfeeding: Implications for Adopted Children and their Mothers, (International Breastfeeding Journal 2006) 1:5, 2