A decade-long study out of Boise State University claims to have found a correlation between breastfeeding and increased maternal sensitivity over a child’s first 10 years.
Published by the American Psychological Association, researchers analyzed data (including questionnaires and videotaped interactions) from 1,272 families across 10 cities in the U.S. based on their interactions during free-play scenarios and problem-solving activities. Mothers were rated on how they dealt with their children, including their levels of support, hostility and respect for their child’s autonomy, at various stages of growth from one month to 11 years of age.
“It was surprising to us that breastfeeding duration predicted change over time in maternal sensitivity,” Dr. Jennifer Weaver, lead author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Boise State University, said to the Daily Mail. “We had prior research suggesting a link between breastfeeding and early maternal sensitivity, but nothing to indicate that we would continue to see effects of breastfeeding significantly beyond the period when breastfeeding had ended.”
Activities that mothers and fathers engaged in with their kids included playing with toys and solving a maze puzzle on an Etch-A-Sketch. According to the study, the majority of mothers (74.4 per cent) who participated reported “some breastfeeding” and the average length of breastfeeding was slightly less than 17 weeks.
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Until now, studies have shown that breastfeeding carries a host of benefits to both the mother and child, including reducing postpartum depression in new mothers, and fewer health problems, increased immunity and higher cognitive competence in children. This is the first study to draw a correlation between nursing and maternal sensitivity.
“Ultimately, I do hope that we will see breastfeeding examined more closely as a parenting factor, not just as a health consideration, to allow us to more fully understand the role that breastfeeding plays in family life,” Weaver said.
However, experts point out that these results can be misinterpreted as shaming mothers who don’t (or can’t) breastfeed their children.
“Studies like this show overall trends, but they cannot predict with certainty individual mother-child experiences,” says family psychologist Dr. Jillian Roberts. “It would be unwise and potentially harmful to moms who cannot breastfeed to leave them feeling that their relationship is at risk.”
Not to mention the bonding that happens between a mother and her child is dependent on a number of factors, and is certainly not decided solely through breastfeeding.
“A woman’s maternal sensitivity is based on the connection she has to herself, which will reflect back onto the child as well as other relationships,” says Julie Romanowski, parenting coach and early childhood consultant. “Whether someone breastfeeds or not, is a working parent or not, whether you see your child every day or not, is not a measurement tool to grade what kind of parent you are and how good you may or may not be.”
Roberts points to paid maternity leave for women who are self-employed, as well as emotional support from others as helpful tools to promote bonding, but she in no way says breastfeeding is the key.
“The key to remember here is that there is more to quality mother-baby relationships than breastfeeding.”