Researchers divided a group of new mothers into breast-feeders and formula-feeders, and performed functional MRIs (fMRI) on them about a month after their babies were born. Although all the mothers' brains became more active when listening to their own baby's cry, the changes in the breast-feeding mothers' relevant brain regions were much greater.
Time Magazine reports:
“The study, which the researchers say is the first to link brain activity with maternal behavior, is likely to reinforce the convictions of breast-feeding mothers that they're doing right by their babies”.
Breastfeeding is the least expensive and most effective way to improve and protect your baby's health, and now a first-of-its-kind study also suggests that breastfeeding may have a direct impact on a mother's brain, promoting 'maternal behavior' and increasing emotional bonding between the mother and child.
This is not altogether surprising, since breastfeeding promotes the increased release of oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone," or "bonding hormone."
Breastfeeding Alters Your Brain Activity
Still, it's interesting to note the changes in brain activity observed in breastfeeding moms. The results were published in the April issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and the researchers suggest that breastfeeding may be "the secret" that strengthens mother-baby bonding.
The Yale University researchers divided mothers into two groups:
- Nine breast-feeders
- Eight formula-feeders
About one month after giving birth, the mothers underwent functional MRIs (fMRI) while listening to audio clips of their own baby, and an unknown baby, crying. While all of the mothers' brains became more active when listening to their own baby's cry, the breastfeeding mothers displayed more significant activity in relevant brain regions.
Whether or not this is directly related to increased oxytocin levels, or whether some other mechanism is at play is still unknown. But it can be worthwhile to take this information into consideration if you're still on the fence about breastfeeding, or perhaps if you're concerned about being able to successfully bond with your baby whether breastfeeding, or not.
The Many Health Benefits of Breastfeeding—For Both Mother and Child
Aside from promoting stronger emotional bonding, breastfeeding offers a long list of life-long health benefits, not just for the child, but for the mother as well.
Studies have shown that breastfed babies gain added protection against:
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) Eczema Respiratory- and other types of infections Heart disease Obesity Type 1 and type 2 diabetes Bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease Asthma and allergies Necrotizing enterocolitis among premature babies
Breastfeeding can also help promote cognitive development in your child. It also benefits the mother in several ways, including:
Enhancing maternal behavior through increased oxytocin release "Natural birth control," as it suppresses ovulation, making pregnancy less likely Diabetic mothers typically require less insulin Easier weight loss Reducing your risk of endometrial-, ovarian- and breast cancers Reducing your risk of metabolic syndrome
Breastfeeding More Successful with Proper Maternity Leave
A recent article in Medical News Today brings up a related and important point in terms of what can help make breastfeeding more successful, and that is extended maternity leave.
Ideally, you'll want to breastfeed your baby for at least six months, but this can be tricky if you have to return to work after a few short weeks of maternity leave. An article in the journal Pediatrics, published last month, points out that national breastfeeding rates in the US still fall short of the "Healthy People 2010" goals.
Of the women who had at least 13 weeks maternity leave, just over 74 percent started breastfeeding. Meanwhile, the breastfeeding rate dropped by nearly 10 percent for women who only had one to six weeks maternity leave. Those with longer maternity leave also had the highest ratio of babies still breastfeeding at three months of age.
The authors concluded:
"If new mothers delay their time of return to work, then duration of breastfeeding among US mothers may lengthen."
One answer to increase breastfeeding rates would be to extend the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is the recommendation of the study's authors. American women are currently entitled to 12 weeks unpaid leave after giving birth, according to the US Family Leave and Medical Act. However, this federal law does not apply to many women who work for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, as they only have to offer this benefit to women who have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the preceding 12 months.
- Swedish mothers get 16 months maternity leave at 80 percent pay
- Japanese women receive 14 weeks leave at 66 percent pay, and
- Canadians get 17 weeks off at 55 percent of their regular salary
Since American law does not require the employer to pay a percentage of a woman's salary during maternity leave, taking extra time off is a financial impossibility for many families. While there's no easy answer to that dilemma (barring legislative changes), if you can afford it, it may be well worth considering...
Is Home Birth Right for You?
In related news, home births are now at the highest level since 1990, and this could be a beneficial trend to help increase breastfeeding rates.
While there are multiple reasons for this trend, I see it as a sign that more families are now starting to take back control of their health, and that of their offspring. Patient-doctor trust is wearing thin these days, as conflicts of interest are becoming increasingly obvious, and more people are looking for low intervention birthing options. Many parents also want to return to a more soothing and natural way of greeting their child into the world, and opt to avoid immediate vaccinations.
As an added benefit, home births are also less expensive, costing about one-third of a hospital birth.
According to a recently published study in the journal Birth, the number of American women delivering their babies at home increased by a healthy 20 percent between 2004 and 2008. The primary thrust behind this change is attributed to white women increasingly opting to give birth at home—Caucasians accounted for 94 percent of the increase.
Which is Safer—Home Births or Hospital Births?
There's much controversy over this issue. Some studies have concluded that hospital births are safer, and many women are still dissuaded by their obstetricians to pursue a home birth.
But is all that worry warranted?
An interesting review of the evidence was published back in 2003, which shatters many of these concerns.
Published in the journal Birth, the authors criticize the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for sensationalizing negative studies; one in particular alleged to have found that home births doubled the risk of newborn death. However, upon more careful review, the study in question contained "numerous flaws and limitations," and "could not be used" to make an informed decision about whether or not women should be discouraged from opting for home birth.
The review reads, in part:
"... The authors noted "controversy" in literature concerning the safety of home deliveries, but cited only 4 studies that they claim support their findings of increased risk of neonatal mortality and adverse outcomes. They failed to mention or discuss findings from the bulk of the recent national and international literature, which concluded that planned home birth is a safe and reasonable option. More importantly, they misrepresented the literature that they did cite. Even a cursory examination of those studies revealed that two of them included both low- and high-risk women in the home birth group.
... [R]eviewing controlled trials in Europe, Springer and Van Weel concluded that planned home birth is "safe in selected women and with adequate infrastructure and support". In the United States, Murphy and Fullerton concluded, "home birth can be accomplished with good outcomes under the care of qualified practitioners and within a system that facilitates transfer to hospital care when necessary."
The authors also point out that:
"... Recently, a policy statement by the Governing Council of the American Public Health Association concluded that "Births to healthy mothers, who are not considered at medical risk after comprehensive screening by trained professionals, can occur safely in various settings, including out-of-hospital birth centers and homes."
High-risk pregnancies that are typically not good candidates for home birth include women who are:
- Over the age of 40
- Obese (weighing over 300 pounds)
The review concludes with the following advice:
"... Each year in the United States more than 25,000 women choose to deliver at home. It is time for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to recognize that the evidence calls for improvements in the provision of out-of-hospital services, rather than their elimination, and to provide leadership in ensuring adequate infrastructure and support for those women choosing home birth.
It is time for national funding groups, government health agencies, and editorials to support investigations on the models of care that produce optimal outcomes across birth sites."
"... When the findings of a new study disagree with copious evidence from high-quality trials, the study methodology and interpretation must be examined closely."
Hopefully this level-headed review of the evidence will help put your mind at ease. Because while there's no way to completely eliminate all risk inherent with childbirth, there's actually very little evidence to indicate that giving birth at home with a well-qualified birthing professional is riskier than giving birth in a hospital, as long as you're in good health, and have a normal, low-risk pregnancy. On the contrary, it may actually be safer. And the added benefits can be great.
Help for Moms Who Can't Breastfeed
Ideally you should strive to breastfeed your baby exclusively for the first six months, and only then begin to supplement with solid foods (while still continuing to breastfeed as well). If you're having trouble breastfeeding, Le Leche League is a terrific resource to contact for help.
However, if you're unable to breastfeed for any reason, please steer clear of commercial infant formulas as much as possible and definitely avoid all soy infant formula. The next best alternative to breast milk is to make a healthy homemade infant formula using this recipe.