Breast-feeding has well-documented benefits.
Studies have shown it nourishes babies while fighting off infections
and even boosting IQ. Now a study in Pediatrics suggests
nursing also may protect infants from neglect.
In a study of 6,621 Australian children
over 15 years, researchers found that those who were breast-fed
were far less likely to be neglected or abused by their mothers.
Babies who weren't breast-fed were more than 2½ times as
likely to be maltreated by their mothers as those who were nursed
for four months or more, the study shows. There was no link
between breast-feeding and the risk of maltreatment by fathers
Women who don't breast-feed can still be wonderful mothers,
of course, and both parents can feel physically and emotionally
close during bottle feeding, says author Lane Strathearn of
Houston's Baylor College of Medicine.
But a hormone released during nursing,
called oxytocin, may amplify that bond, Strathearn says.
Studies show that oxytocin has a powerful
effect on the brain: It makes people feel less anxious and stressed
but more calm, trusting and connected, Strathearn says. In animals,
both nursing and oxytocin stimulate parts of the brain that
are involved in maternal behavior.
Of course, many factors contribute to child
neglect, Strathearn says.
To find out whether breast-feeding should
get the credit for reducing the risk, Strathearn considered
details such as the mother's age, race, marital status, education,
employment and use of tobacco and alcohol. He also looked at
whether mothers were anxious or depressed, their attitudes toward
pregnancy and their babies and how much they played with or
talked to their children.
Of all of these factors, breast-feeding
remained the strongest predictor of neglect, Strathearn says.
Still, the paper cannot prove that breast-feeding
made women better mothers, says Brett Collett, an attending
psychologist at Seattle Children's Hospital. That's because
researchers didn't randomly assign women to breast-feed or bottle-feed
— an experiment that would be unethical, given breast
milk's medical advantages.
Collett says the researchers may have it
backward. Instead of breast-feeding turning women into good
mothers, it's possible that good mothers are more likely to
breast-feed. He notes that it can take perseverance to breast-feed,
which can be difficult, exhausting and even painful at first.
"Some women may not be able to breast-feed,
and that may not have anything to do with maltreatment," Collett
says, noting that obstacles to nursing include medical problems
as well as demanding jobs that don't give women the opportunity
to breast-feed or pump milk.
"We don't want to induce guilt on the part
of moms who aren't able to persevere" with nursing, Collett
says. "There are a lot of different pathways to healthy attachments"
between mothers and babies.
And Strathearn says it's possible that
both explanations of his findings are valid: Although nurturing
mothers may be more likely to nurse, the act of breast-feeding
further strengthens that commitment to child rearing.
With 900,000 American children maltreated
each year, Strathearn says, the subject deserves more study.