Breast-Feeding: The Stress Buster That Lasts for Years

FRIDAY Aug. 8, 2008 -- Breast-feeding offers a host of benefits to both mother and baby, including a stronger immune system for the baby and faster weight loss for mom. There are even some known psychological benefits from breast-feeding, such as a stronger parent-child bond.

But British researchers have recently discovered another mental bonus -- children who are breast-fed seem to cope with stress and anxiety more effectively when they reach school age.

In a group of almost 9,000 children between the ages of 5 and 10, children who weren't breast-fed and whose parents were getting divorced or separated were 9.4 times more likely to be highly anxious when compared to other children. But, children who were breast-fed as infants whose parents were getting divorced were only 2.2 times as likely to be highly anxious, the study found.

"Breast-feeding is associated with resilience against the psychosocial stress linked with parental divorce/separation," the study's authors concluded in a recent issue of the Archives of Diseases in Childhood.

The authors theorized that the physical contact between mother and child in the first few days of life could help form certain neural and hormonal pathways that affect a person's ability to cope with stress later in life.

Breast-feeding experts have long been aware of the mother-baby bond that occurs during breast-feeding. "There's a lot less verbal communication, but lots of tactile communication and eye contact that promotes positive physiological responses," said Liz Maseth, an outpatient lactation consultant at Akron's Children's Hospital in Ohio.

"Breast-feeding does seem to suppress stress responses in babies, and it does seem that there's a protective effect," she said.

"In terms of the biological possibility, breast milk is pretty amazing stuff, and the tactile interaction that goes along with breast-feeding does have an influence on the development of neurons," explained Judy Hopkinson, an associate professor of pediatrics in the section of nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Hopkinson added that babies who aren't breast-fed may be able to reap similar benefits with lots of holding and touching.

The study authors also suggested that the bond created during breast-feeding might affect the way the child and the mother interact, and that effect might be long-lasting.

Hopkinson pointed out that mothers who are successful at breast-feeding often have a supportive social network, which could also help lessen a child's stress in times of crisis.

Whatever the reason for the association, it was clear that children who had been breast-fed were less stressed.

Both Maseth and Hopkinson said it's very important to try to begin breast-feeding as soon as possible after birth -- no more than one hour. Maseth said this is because the breasts contain glands that release the same scent as amniotic fluid, a scent that babies will recognize.

"For most mothers, breast-feeding doesn't come naturally. If the baby doesn't latch on, it can lead to feelings of failure and concern about whether or not the baby is getting enough milk. Women need lots of encouragement and education," Maseth said.

"Don't give up, though, seek help" she advised, adding that your baby's pediatrician will likely have information on what local breast-feeding resources are available.

"Breast-feeding is something for mothers and babies to enjoy. A time for them to cherish and nurture each other," said Hopkinson. For women who can't breast-feed, she said, that skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby can also help build a similar bond.

More information

The National Women's Health Information Center has more on breast-feeding.

Posted: August 2008


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