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Breast-Feeding Mothers
Less Likely to Abuse Kids

, Reuter's Health

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Mothers who breast-feed their newborns for longer periods of time are less likely to abuse them, new study findings suggest.

"The longer the mother breast-fed her infant, the less likely her risk of being reported for subsequent abuse," Dr. Lane Strathearn of the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital in Houston told Reuters Health.

Strathearn added that breast-feeding also appeared to be related to the severity of abuse inflicted on children. The shorter the period of time women spent breast-feeding, the more likely their children were to suffer the most severe forms of neglect and physical abuse.

The researcher bases his conclusions on surveys of 7,695 mothers about how long they breast-fed their infants. Time periods ranged from not at all to longer than 6 months. Data were then collected over 14 years to see if the children became the subject of any reports of abuse.

Presenting his findings Wednesday at the 14th International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect in Denver, Colorado, Strathearn reported that almost 11% of the study participants--838 children--were reported as having been maltreated. Of those, 548 had at least one substantiated report of abuse.

The researcher found that babies who were breast-fed until they were at least 4 months old were much less likely than those who were breast-fed for shorter periods or not at all to be the subject of a substantiated report of neglect or physical abuse and intervention by authorities.

Indeed, when comparing all of the factors associated with the risk of substantiated reports of child abuse, Strathearn found that breast-feeding infants for less than 4 months was the strongest predictor of whether those infants would be the subject of substantiated reports of abuse. Other risk factors for child abuse included having a mother who was a single parent, having a mother who had a low education level, and having a mother who was a binge drinker.

The researcher could find no significant association between duration of breast-feeding and the risk of emotional or sexual forms of child abuse.

In an interview with Reuters Health, Strathearn explained that the link between breast-feeding and abuse may result from a combination of factors. For example, he said he thought that mothers who are more likely to abuse their children may be less likely to breast-feed the children during their first months of life. However, he also said that breast-feeding may actually offer a form of protection against abuse, by lowering a mother's inclination to abuse.

Breast-feeding stimulates a physiological response in mothers, Strathearn explained, by increasing the levels of the substance oxytocin in the body. Studies with animals have shown that increased levels of oxytocin can strengthen a mother's bond with her infant.

Even just the act of breast-feeding can affect the relationship between mother and child, the researcher added. "Through this process of breast-feeding, the mother is learning to be responsive to the infant's needs," Strathearn said.

Furthermore, other studies with rats have found that pups who were more nurtured by their mothers have more receptors for oxytocin in their brains. Having more receptors means that the substance has more places to stimulate, Strathearn explained. So when the pups grow up and become mothers themselves, increased amounts of oxytocin from breast-feeding will affect them more strongly than mothers with fewer receptors.

"Then breast-feeding is a more rewarding experience for them," Strathearn said.

This biological mechanism may help explain why mothers who were abused as children are more likely to abuse their own, the researcher added. But he emphasized that mothers are not destined to be more or less nurturing. "We can be taught how to be nurturant," he said.

He suggested that pediatricians and policymakers such as hospital administrators encourage women to breast-feed their infants. "It's such a simple thing," he said.

Reference Source 89


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