Breastfed babies less likely to be neglected

An international team of specialists have carried out a study which has revealed that mothers who breastfeed are less likely to neglect their children.

The team led by Dr. Lane Strathearn, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas say their study provides new evidence that breastfeeding may have a protective effect and promoting breastfeeding may be a simple and cost-effective way to strengthen the mother-infant relationship.

The researchers say maternal neglect represents a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between a mother and her child, where the mother fails to provide the physical and emotional care that an infant needs to develop normally.

Dr. Strathearn, a former graduate of the University of Queensland says breastfeeding may be a natural way to support the mother-infant relationship and reduce the risk of neglect in the long term.

He says it is a concern that limited maternity leave often inhibits women from strengthening this relationship and providing economic and social support for new mothers to stay at home with their babies may help accomplish this goal.

Dr. Strathearn says the best way to help mothers adapt to the individual needs of their children is to enable them to breastfeed.

In order to examine the importance of this relationship, Dr. Strathearn and colleagues from the University of Queensland and Mater Misericordiae Children's Hospital in Brisbane followed 7,223 Australian women and their children over a 15-year period.

To identify other factors that might affect the likelihood that a mother would neglect or injure her child and the length of time a child was breastfed, they used reports in an Australian database and it was revealed that the longer the mother breastfed her infant, the lower the risk that she would neglect the baby or child.

Dr. Strathearn says mothers who breastfed for less than four months were more than twice as likely to neglect their children than were those who breastfed four months or more and those who did not breastfeed were almost 4 times more likely to neglect than women who breastfed at least four months.

The team say even when factors such socioeconomic status, maternal attitudes, anxiety, substance abuse and depression, maternal age, race, marital status, qualification, working or non working and smoking and drinking habits of the mothers were accounted for the relationship between breastfeeding and maternal neglect remained.

Other research provides ample evidence which help explains why breastfeeding plays a role in supporting the development of the mother-infant relationship - Dr. Strathearn says a critical hormone produced during breastfeeding, oxytocin, promotes and reinforces maternal behaviour and it is possible that this helps to develop the attachment relationship of the mother and her baby.

Dr. Strathearn says it is known that oxytocin has a powerful effect on the brain and makes people less anxious and stressed and calmer, trusting and more connected.

Dr. Strathearn says the factors that help shape the development of the oxytocin system in the brain may predispose to successful breastfeeding and nurturance of the baby and understanding early relationship factors that may help prevent maternal neglect, which is very important for society both in developing intervention strategies for mothers and preventing possible long-term developmental problems for children.

The research team included Dr. Abdullah Mamun and Dr. Jake Najman from the University of Queensland, Australia and Dr. Michael O'Callaghan of Mater Misericordiae Children's Hospital in Brisbane, Australia.

The research was supported by grants from the Queensland Government Department of Child Safety, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and the United States National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

There is a solid body of research which supports the many benefits of breast feeding for both mother and child - premature babies especially gain more benefit from breast milk and mothers who breastfeed have fewer episodes of post-delivery depression, lose weight easily after pregnancy and are less likely to have cancer of the breast and ovarian cancer, anaemia and osteoporosis.

The study is published in the February 09 issue of medical journal Pediatrics.

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