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Breastfeeding Mothers Less Likely To Neglect Kids

January 26, 2009

Mothers who breastfeed are less likely to neglect their children, said a Baylor College of Medicine researcher in a report that appears online in the journal Pediatrics today.

Although many factors are associated with maternal neglect, this study provides new evidence that breastfeeding may have a protective effect, said Dr. Lane Strathearn, assistant professor of pediatrics at BCM and Texas Children’s Hospital and the senior author on the study.
Strengthening bond

“Promoting breastfeeding may be a simple and cost-effective way to strengthen the mother-infant relationship,” said Strathearn. “Providing the economic and social support for new mothers to stay at home with their babies may help accomplish this goal. The simple fact that women have such limited maternity leave inhibits them from strengthening this relationship.”

“There is no better way to help mothers adapt to the individual needs of their children than to enable them to breastfeed,” said Strathearn. “It’s biological.”

“Maternal neglect represents a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between a mother and her child, as the mom fails to provide the physical and emotional caregiving that an infant requires for optimal development,” said Strathearn. “Breastfeeding may be a natural way to support the mother-infant relationship, reducing the risk of neglect in the long term.”
Australian data

To study this relationship, Strathearn and colleagues from The University of Queensland and Mater Misericordiae Children’s Hospital in Australia followed 7,223 Australian women and their children over a 15-year period. They used reports in an Australian database to identify length of breastfeeding along with other factors that might affect the likelihood that a mother would neglect or injure her child.

They found that the longer the mother breastfed her infant, the lower the risk that she would neglect the baby or child, Strathearn said.

Mothers who breastfed for less than four months were more than twice as likely to neglect their children than were those who breastfed four months or more. Those who did not breastfeed were 3.8 times more likely to neglect than women who breastfed at least four months.

“We have turned this study inside out to adjust for possible confounding factors (factors that may contradict or confuse results) including socioeconomic status, maternal attitudes toward caregiving, anxiety, substance abuse and depression,” said Strathearn. “The relationship between breastfeeding and maternal neglect still comes out very strongly.”
Biology of attachment

Evidence from other biological studies may explain why breastfeeding plays a role in supporting the development of the mother-infant relationship.

“Oxytocin is a critical hormone produced during breastfeeding that promotes and reinforces maternal behavior,” said Strathearn. “Animal studies have shown that this hormone is critical for the initiation of maternal behaviors in animals.”

“It may be that breastfeeding stimulates oxytocin production in the brain, helping to develop the attachment relationship of the mother and her baby,” said Strathearn. “Or the factors that help shape the development of the oxytocin system in the brain may predispose to successful breastfeeding and nurturance of the baby.”
Broader social impact

“Understanding early relationship factors that may help prevent maternal neglect is of utmost importance for society both in developing intervention strategies for mothers and preventing possible long-term developmental problems for children,” said Strathearn.

Others who took part in this study include Drs. Abdullah Mamun and Jake Najman of The University of Queensland, Australia and Dr. Michael O’Callaghan of Mater Misericordiae Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, Australia.

Funding for this research was supported by grants from the Queensland Government Department of Child Safety, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and the United States National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The study will also appear in the February print edition.

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