Women who breastfeed for longer will become increasingly attentive mothers throughout their child’s first 10 years, new research claims.
The decade-long study published by the American Psychological Association is the first ever to suggest nursing could have years-long benefits on a woman’s mental health.
Breastfeeding has long been associated with positive outcomes for children, such as higher intelligence, better gut health, and stronger immune systems. Studies have also shown the practice lowers a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and post-partum depression.
But the new study’s authors admitted they were surprised to find a lingering, and increasing, maternal sensitivity linked to nursing.
The 10-year study by the American Psychological Association is the first ever to suggest nursing could have years-long benefits on a woman’s mental health (file image)
This was even the case after adjusting their findings to account for mental health conditions, attitudes towards parents, ethnicity, education and presence of a romantic partner.
‘It was surprising to us that breastfeeding duration predicted change over time in maternal sensitivity,’ said the study’s lead author Dr Jennifer Weaver of Boise State University.
‘We had prior research suggesting a link between breastfeeding and early maternal sensitivity, but nothing to indicate that we would continue to see effects of breastfeeding significantly beyond the period when breastfeeding had ended.’
Dr Weaver and her team outlined a framework for maternal sensitivity, defining it as:
- the timing of a mother’s responsiveness to her child
- her emotional tone
- how flexible her behavior was
- her ability to read her child’s cues
Though the impact on maternal sensitivity was small, researchers said the correlation was clear.
However, they said there may be many other steps that mothers take to bond with their children which increase or decrease bonding.
The researchers analyzed data from interviews with 1,272 families who participated in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care.
The mothers, recruited from 10 sites around the US in 1991 when their infants were a month old, completed a home interview and became part of the initial study sample.
Thirty percent of them were less-educated parents with no college education, and 13 percent were African-American.
On average, the mothers in the study breastfed for 17 weeks. Fewer than 1 percent breastfed for 24 months and 29 percent didn’t breastfeed at all.
The researchers videotaped families in their homes until the child reached 11.
During those moments, the parents were seen interacting with their children during free play scenarios and age-appropriate problem-solving tasks.
At the six-month visit, parents and babies played with a set of toys and, when the children were four, they would complete a maze together.
When the children were in fifth grade, mothers talked to their child about an area of possible disagreement, and also worked with their child to build a tower out of toothpicks.
Researchers rated the quality of the collaborative interaction, such as the mother’s level of support, respect for her child’s autonomy and levels of hostility.
While fathers participated in the home interviews, there was no correlation between the mother’s breastfeeding length and men’s sensitivity toward their children.
Dr Weaver insisted the study is not intended to diminish the bonding experiences of women who are not able to breastfeed.
‘Ultimately, I do hope that we will see breastfeeding examined more closely as a parenting factor, not just as a health consideration, to allow us to more fully understand the role that breastfeeding plays in family life.’
Mothers are encouraged to exclusively breastfeed their children until they are six months old and should continue the practice until the child reaches 12 months of age.
The time spent breastfeeding helps develop the bond between child and mother while also providing a host of benefits for the baby.
Breast milk contains antibodies, other proteins and immune cells that help prevent microorganisms from penetrating body tissue.
Additionally, research has shown that breastfed babies are less likely to catch viruses.
And if they do catch a virus, antibodies are produced by the mother which are then passed on to the baby via breast milk, helps colonize their guts.
The adult gut is home to trillions of microorganisms which helps harvest energy from food, regulate the immune system and keeps the gut lining healthy.