Psychological Impact Of Breastfeeding On A Mother And A Child
Having a child is one of the most transformational events a person can undergo. It comes with a rally of new anxieties, surprises, problems and joys, to name a few. One of the many new skills that a new mother may choose is to breastfeed. It is a well-known fact that breastfeeding is the ‘gold-standard’ feeding method for new-borns, providing an optimally nutritious meal packed with developmental and immunologically advantageous substances. This is exemplified by the WHO and American Academy of Paediatrics, who both suggest that a new-born should be exclusively breastfed up until the age of 6 months. The psychological effects of breastfeeding on both mother and child are less well studied and understood, therefore in this essay I will be looking at some studies which try to prove to link between the psychologies of the mother and child and breastfeeding.
I had the pleasure of meeting a first-time mother, Katie and her 5-day-old daughter, Cleo, at the Whittington hospital. At the initial meeting it was clear that Katie and her husband had done extensive research and were both very well prepared for parenthood. Subsequently, we met up again four weeks later, were we asked a few questions on their wellbeing and her experiences as a new mother. It was evident that motherhood was coming very naturally to Katie; she had experienced no major issues, sleeping patterns were developing and there were no issues surrounding breastfeeding. In response to some of our questions she said that breastfeeding had definitely allowed her to become more in tune with Cleo’s action and cries, allowing Katie to begin to understand what Cleo wanted or was asking for She also said that she found the breastfeeding process very relaxing, and said it almost seemed to have a ‘hypnotic’ effect on her. She also mentioned that she noticed a significant difference in how much easier it was to put Cleo to bed after a night feed, and also how much less time she spent feeding night. Further on it the essay, I will explore why Katie might experience of all this and the reasons behind it. All of this made me start to think about the effect on the psyche that breastfeeding might have.
In children, there is a significant amount of brain development between birth and 3 years of age. This highly sensitive process is easily influenced by both exogenous and endogenous factors, one of which may be breastfeeding. Several large-scale studies have found there to be a compelling correlation between being exclusively breastfed and higher IQ levels, memory retention, cognitive function and language development. One study performed by ‘Quinn et al’ followed a group from infancy to 5-years-old. They found that a dose dependent facilitation of breastfeeding duration had an impact on verbal intelligence, measured using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. It found that children who were exclusively breastfed for the first sixth months of their life had the highest verbal intelligence scores, whereas those who were formula fed had the lowest scores. A randomised controlled trial performed by Arch Gen Psychiatry looked at 13,000 mother-child dyads. In this, a group of mothers were randomly selected to increase their breastfeeding schedule seven-fold when the baby was 3 months old. The children were followed up with distinct results showing that the children who had undergone prolonged exclusive breastfeeding showed higher intelligence scores and higher ratings of academic proficiency at 6.5 years of age. It must be mentioned that both of these studies controlled for a range of confounding factors such as education, employment, income, age, delivery method, birth weight, smoking habits to name a few. Although, there was a study performed by ‘Jacobson et al’, which initially found similar results to the above two studies but when adjusting the results for maternal intelligence and parenting skills, the correlation was reduced to an insignificant level.
Other studies looked at the physiological changes and genetic evidence to provide information as to why these correlations may occur. In human breast milk there are two predominant polyunsaturated fatty-acids called docosahexenoic acid and arachidoic acid whose functions are involved in healthy neuronal repair, growth and myelination. New-borns are unable to produce significant amounts of docosahexenoic acid until around 6 months, and therefore are reliant on breast-milk in the meantime. A study by ‘Caspi et al’ looked at the polymorphisms in the FADS2 gene which encodes an enzyme which helps to metabolise the aforementioned fatty acids. Children with the gene variant which led to more efficient processing of these fatty acids displayed the highest intelligence scores overall. This may have something to do with the increased myelination of white matter in the frontal and temporal lobes in babies who were exclusively breastfed, both areas of higher order cognition and socio-emotional functioning.
In terms of the psychological effects in mothers, breastfeeding is associated with reduction in anxiety, negative moods and stress, all indicated by stronger cardiac vagal tone modulation, reduced blood pressure and reduced heart rate. It is also associated with longer (by 45 minutes) and better sleep quality. This improved sleep may be a result of the faster development of the baby’s circadian rhythm which develops partially as a result of hormones. One of the hormones in breast milk is tryptophan, an amino acid used by the body to make melatonin, which helps to induce sleep. The amount of tryptophan is regulated by the mothers own circadian rhythm. Breastfeeding has also shown to facilitate maternal sensitivity and secure the attachment between mother and child, this is probably to the prolonged contact periods and time spent with the new-born. In an extensive MRI study found that exclusively breastfeeding mothers exhibited greater brain activation in several limbic regions when listening to their own infants cries – showing greater involvement of brain systems with emotion.
From the evidence above I think that it is clear to see the defining impacts that breastfeeding may have on both the mother and child. Whether this is in its physiological regard and in relation to cognition development leading to the psychological correlations that have be shown in the above studies; it proves that it is very likely to have a significant link.
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