By Margarita Nahapetyan
Mothers who do not breastfeed their infants are nearly 4 times more likely to neglect and abuse their child, according to a Baylor College of Medicine study in Queensland, Australia.
To reach this conclusion, researchers, lead by senior author Lane Strathearn, assistant professor of pediatrics at BCM and Texas Children's Hospital, linked data from the University of Queensland Study of Pregnancy - Australia's largest longitudinal study which tracks mothers and their children, with substantiated reports of maltreatment recorded by the state's child protection authorities. Maltreatment included neglect, as well as emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
The investigators studied 7,223 Australian women and their children over a 15-year period. The average age of a mother was 25 years. Of all the participants, 40 per cent of women breastfed for four months, 40 per cent for less than four months, and 20 per cent of moms did not breastfeed.
The results showed that of the 1,421 women who did not breastfeed their child, 102 women, or 7.2 per cent, neglected or abused their child in some way. This compared with 1.6 per cent of the 2,616 women who breastfed for more than four months, and 4.8 per cent of the 2,584 women who breastfed for less than four months.
Neglect turned out to be the most common category of abuse, but all types of maltreatment increased as the duration of breastfeeding decreased. Other factors found to increase the likelihood of maltreatment were marital status, low education, smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy, as well as the symptoms of prenatal anxiety. The research found that mothers who did not breastfeed were 3.8 times more likely to maltreat their child.
Previous research has provided a strong evidence on how breast-feeding may help form a strong mother-infant bond, Dr. Lane Strathearn said in a Baylor news release. Premature babies are the ones who benefit the most from breast milk and breastfeeding women have less chance of developing post-delivery depression. In addition, they lose weight easily after pregnancy and are less likely to have breast and ovarian cancer, as well as anemia and osteoporosis.
"Oxytocin is a critical hormone produced during breast-feeding that promotes and reinforces maternal behavior. Animal studies have shown that this hormone is critical for the initiation of maternal behaviors in animals," Strathearn said. "It may be that breast-feeding stimulates oxytocin production in the brain, helping to develop the attachment relationship of the mother and her baby. Or the factors that help shape the development of the oxytocin system in the brain may predispose to successful breast-feeding and nurturance of the baby."
Dr. Strathearn says that "Breastfeeding may simply promote that interpersonal bond between a mother and her baby - the physical touch, the holding, the eye-to-eye contact. It ensures that physical touch occurs in an attuned way, but I would imagine a similar result for any mother who has that same one-on-one contact while they are feeding on a regular basis."
According the scientist, maternal neglect leads to a complete breakdown in the relationship between a mother and her baby, as a child is being deprived of both physical and emotional care which is so important for his optimal development. Breastfeeding is considered to be a natural way to bond a mother with her child, reducing the risk of neglect in a long term.
The study is published in the February'09 issue of medical journal Pediatrics.