Less Likely to Abuse Kids
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
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
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,"
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
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.
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