The research offers an important lesson for all parents.
For many new mothers, breastfeeding is a significant part of bonding with baby. Now research shows that’s a deepened connection that continues for years after the child is weaned.
According to an October study published in Developmental Psychology, the longer a woman breastfeeds her child, the more maternal sensitivity she shows up to a decade later.
“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,” says lead author Jennifer M. Weaver, associate professor of psychological science at Boise State University.
The 10-year longitudinal study tracked 1,272 American families through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Study of Early Child Care. Using home interviews and observations, the researchers measured the mothers’ levels of maternal sensitivity as their children aged.
They found that the longer mothers breastfed, the more likely they were to work cooperatively on age-appropriate tasks through the years.
“Mothers who were more sensitive were able to support their children’s autonomy, to maintain a positive emotional tone, and were involved and invested in their interactions with their child,” says Weaver.
How all parents can boost sensitivity
Although the effect sizes were relatively small, Weaver says there are significant lessons for all parents regardless of whether they breastfeed.
“I think it is important to understand that breastfeeding may be one avenue through which the mother-child relationship can benefit, but it isn’t the only way,” she says.
For parents who bottle feed, she suggests still using mealtimes as opportunities to connect by holding the child, talking to the child and reading the child’s unique cues rather than propping up the bottle and walking away.
“I think this research points to the importance of using those opportunities provided by feeding or dressing or changing to build a relationship with the infant through setting a positive emotional tone and being responsive to the child,” says Weaver.
What the study means for policy-makers
The study should also send a clear message to employers about the importance of facilitating breastfeeding as mothers return to work—either by pumping or, better yet, allowing women to work close to their nursing infants.
“We need employment situations where mothers’ breastfeeding can be accommodated and supported for as long as possible,” Weaver says, suggesting ideal solutions could include allowing women to being their babies to work or offering quality child care options nearby.
With previous studies showing ties between breastfeeding and improved behavioral outcomes for the children in adulthood, this is an issue that should be of importance to us all. As Weaver says, “Breastfeeding is part of the early mother-child relationship, and supporting this relationship can have a multitude of benefits for mothers and their children.”