Breastfeeding is an innate characteristic to all lactating species. The significance of breastfeeding in human societies is profound, as reflected by its depiction in mythology, folklore, philosophy, art, and religion. In ancient times, the role of breastfeeding in the well-being of an infant was so marked that if maternal milk was not available for the infant, or for whatever reason it was of an insufficient quantity, ‘wet-nurses’ were employed to take over the role of nurturing the young. This was considered a serious profession by the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to such a point that there were laws designed to regulate this vocation and amalgamate the association. With time there evolved theories which stipulated that breast milk, not only provided nourishment, but also had the ability to pass on physical, moral and mental traits from the source to the infant.
With modern developments and recent advances it is now well established that breastfeeding not only plays an important role in the mental health of the offspring but also of the mother. However, this may not be as simple as transmission of mental characteristics through the milk as previously suggested. For mothers the act of breastfeeding promotes mental health in two ways. In terms of immediate effects, breastfeeding stimulates production of the hormone prolactin, which reinforces a sense of well-being and comfort towards the newborn. This builds a sense of pride in the mother about being able to nurture, provide for and sustain a life which helps boost self-confidence within her. Additionally a psychological bond is created between the mother and child, from which each participant derives a sense of belonging, security, and love. This helps the mother by reducing her stress thereby promoting better sleep, lowering depression and increasing her overall energy levels.
In the case of the infant, the results are more evident in later life. The results manifest through both the mechanism of physical bonding leading to emotional and hormonal responses, as well as through the physical constituents of the milk especially the hormone leptin which reduces stress in the newborns by acting on the hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals and hippocampus. These manifest as a higher IQ, better control in reacting to adverse stimuli, and better resistance to the stress and anxiety resulting from parental separation events such as divorce. A study presented in the April 2010 issue of ‘The Journal of Pediatrics’ grouped childhood behavioral complaints into two groups: Internalizing (Social withdrawal, anxiety, depression etc.) and Externalizing (Delinquency and aggression). The study found that breastfed children scored lower in both areas. This is supportive to breastfeeding programs, considering that the higher the score the more problematic the child’s health. Taking into account the fact that around 20% of all children worldwide suffer from some sort of emotional or mental problem, it may be prudent to stress the importance of breastfeeding in mental health campaigns, since it is a simple but powerful solution to the problem.
In conclusion, breastfeeding promotes mental health in both the mother and the infant, the effects being protective and curative, and the results being both immediate and long-term. Thus it is crucial that the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother, the infant and in the long-term for the health systems are advocated to individuals, health-care providers and the society as a whole.
Fourth Year Medical Student, SRMMCHRC
Bridging Passion and Compassion