Many mothers choose to breastfeed their babies, due to its powerful health benefits. For example, the antibodies in breast milk have proven to help babies fight off harmful viruses and bacteria, which threaten to cause ear infections, allergies, and harmful respiratory illnesses. But that’s on the receiving end—what about the moms? Do they experience any direct benefits from breastfeeding? New research from Boise State University says yes, in fact, they do—and the longer they breastfeed the better.
This study “Breastfeeding Duration Predicts Greater Maternal Sensitivity Over the Next Decade” suggests that women who breastfeed longer exhibit more maternal sensitivity, even past their child’s infant and toddler years. The researchers behind this study accounted for factors like maternal neuroticism, ethnicity, parenting attitudes, a mother’s education, and the presence of a romantic partner—and their findings still held true.
The study’s lead author, Jennifer Weaver, PhD of Boise State explained that the team was initially surprised to observe maternal sensitivity as a long-lasting effect: “It was surprising to us that breastfeeding duration predicted change over time in maternal sensitivity. 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.”
Maternal sensitivity can be defined as the synchronous timing of a mother’s responsiveness to her child, her emotional tone, the flexibility of her behavior, and her distinct ability to read and understand her child. This study holds that maternal sensitivity increased over time, with an increased breastfeeding duration—however, the effect sizes were small. According to Weaver, this means that the close interaction experienced during breastfeeding may be just one of many causes of a stronger bond.
To reach these findings, the group of researchers evaluated data from interviews with 1,272 different families who partook in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care. In 1991, the mothers of these families completed a home interview and officially became study participants. They breastfed for an average of 17 weeks: less than 1 percent breastfed for 24 months, while 29 percent didn’t breastfeed at all. The families were also interviewed and recorded in their homes intermittently until their child turned 11 years old.
During this time, the parents interacted with their kids during different free play scenarios and problem-solving tasks. For instance, at the six-month visit, the parents and their babies with a set of toys; then, when the children turned 4, the families ran through a maze together; and when the children reached fifth grade, the mothers worked with their kid to build a toothpick tower and also discussed a subject of potential disagreement. These interactions revealed the quality of the family’s collaborative efforts: one being the mother’s level of support.
Weaver says that this study is not meant to take away from the bonding experiences of women who aren’t able or choose not to breastfeed; instead, its purpose is to simply better understand the effects of breastfeeding: “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.”
American Psychological Association. (2017, October 30). Bonding Benefits of Breastfeeding Extend Years Beyond Infancy. [Press Release]. Retrieved on January 11, 2018 from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/10/bonding-breastfeeding.aspx