Study: The Longer a Mother Breastfeeds, The More Sensitive She is Toward Her Child’s Needs Later in Life

November 13, 2017 at 7:39 pm

Hormones produced during breastfeeding make mothers more caring and sensitive. Study shows duration of breastfeeding predicts mother’s sensitivity toward child later in life.

Science has already proven a long list of benefits of breastfeeding — higher IQ, better communication skills and long-term protection against disease and obesity for baby, and lower risk of ovarian cancer, breast cancer and postpardum depression for mother.

But recent studies are showing breastfeeding can actually make you a more sensitive and caring mother, not only while breastfeeding, but for years to come.

A new decade-long study, published by the American Psychological Association, shows the length of time a mother breastfeeds is predictive of how sensitive and caring she will be toward her child up to 10 years later.

From 1991 to 2006, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development studied more than 1200 American children from the time they left the hospital until 15 years of age.

Parent–child interactions involving free-play scenarios and problem-solving tasks were videotaped at least a dozen intervals during that period.

At 6 months, mothers were videotaped playing toys with their babies for 15 minutes. When the children were 4.5 years old, they were asked to complete an Etch-A-Sketch maze with their mothers controlling one knob and them controlling the other. At age 10, they were asked to work together with their mothers to build a tower out of toothpicks.

Mothers were also recorded talking to their 10 and 11-year-olds about a topic of possible disagreement.

Mothers were scored on their sensitivity to the child’s non-distress signals, positive regard for the child, supportive presence, respect for autonomy, intrusiveness (reversed-scored) and hostility (reversed-scored).

Boise State University researchers used that data to compare the sensitivity scores and the number of weeks the mothers breastfed, which varied from not at all up to 3 years of age. The average duration was 17 weeks.

“Mothers who persisted in breastfeeding for a longer duration increased their maternal sensitivity over time, suggesting that breastfeeding may set in motion a cascade of positive benefits for mothers in their parenting behaviors,” wrote the report’s author Jennifer M. Weaver, a psychology professor at Boise State University.

This cascade of positive benefits may be initiated by the production of oxytocin and prolactin during breastfeeding, as both hormones are known to promote maternal care-giving behaviors.

These hormones could set the tone for the future mother-child relationship, Weaver writes. So the longer they are produced, the better.

The physical benefits of breastfeeding have received much attention in the medical and nursing fields. Weaver hopes the psychological benefits of breastfeeding start receiving more attention in the parenting literature.

“One could argue that breastfeeding is one of the first parenting decisions a couple makes … better understanding the relational and socio-emotional implications this practice has … is critical,” she writes.

“The close, consistent interaction provided by breastfeeding may be one avenue through which attachment security is strengthened in the mother–child pair.”

RELATED: The Natural Age of Weaning

In her book Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, La Leche League educator Norma Jean Bumgarner claims “child-led” weaning — weaning without pressure from adults — is unlikely to take place before age 4.