Study: Breastfeeding Duration Predicts a Mom’s Attentiveness to Child

Women who breastfeed their babies for longer exhibit more maternal sensitivity even a decade later.Breastfeeding is known to enhance bonding between mother and child.  A new study suggests that the longer a mother breastfeeds, the more attentive she is to her child, even a decade later.

The long-term benefits of breastfeeding on a child’s physical and psychological health have been well-established. Several studies suggest that breastfeeding is positively related to the mother-infant relationship, and that the duration of breastfeeding extends the biological and situational factors that influence bonding and parental investment.

However, very little has been studied about whether or not breastfeeding duration predicts changes in caregiving behavior beyond infancy. Researchers from Boise State University sought out to examine the relationship between breastfeeding duration and maternal sensitivity over time. The new study found that women who breastfeed their babies for longer exhibit more maternal sensitivity even a decade later.

Maternal sensitivity was defined as the timing of a mother’s responsiveness to her child’s needs, her emotional tone, her flexibility in her behavior, and her ability to read her child’s non-verbal cues.

Related: Study: Holding Baby on Left Side is Innate, Promotes Maternal Bonding

The 10-year longitudinal study included 1,272 families who participated in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care. When infants were a month old, the mothers completed a home interview.  The mother-child pairs were then videotaped and evaluated several times until the child turned 11-years-old.

As part of the study, parents were evaluated interacting with their children during free play and age-appropriate tasks. For example, when the children were 4.5 years old, the pairs worked together to complete a maze on an Etch-A-Sketch. When the children were in fifth grade, the pairs worked to build a tower out of toothpicks.

Researchers then evaluated the quality of the interaction between the mothers and their children, specifically examining the mother’s level of support, positive interactions, her encouragement to play or solve problems independently, and any hostile interactions between the pair.

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Nearly 75% of mothers in the study reported some breastfeeding, with some women breastfeeding one week and some breastfeeding for nearly two years.  The average mother in the study breastfed for 17 weeks.

“It was surprising to us that breastfeeding duration predicted change over time in maternal sensitivity,” said the study’s lead author, Jennifer Weaver, PhD, of Boise State University. “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.”

Additional research continues to do nothing but provide strong benefits for mothers who nurse their children for prolonged periods of times. A 2018 study found that lactation reduces the role that metabolic changes like increased insulin resistance, hyperlipidemia and visceral fat accumulation associated with pregnancy. Additionally, breastfeeding reduces the risk of cardiometabolic diseases like preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and preterm labor in women–adverse risks that are increased with pregnancy itself. The study also found that up to 50% of women with gestational diabetes end up developing Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2D) within a five year postpartum period. Lactation for more than one to three months was found to reduce that incidence by up to 80%!

If that’s what one to three months of breastfeeding does, imagine what longer breastfeeding periods can do?

So what can and should we do? As nursing our children becomes more of a normalized part of life, we need to now make sure people know that nursing our children for as long as they need/want to be.

Think about it. When you hear the term “Extended Breastfeeding,” what does that imply? For most clinical purposes, it means breastfeeding past six months.

Six months? Many babies are barely learning to sit up at six months, and the ‘norm’ is that six months is a magic number? Yes, we’re thrilled when mamas go to six months; we know breastfeeding is a labor of love.

But really? When there are so many benefits out there for babies who are nursed for a year, two, or more…why are we settling for encouraging mamas to make it to six months?

Why aren’t doctors and pediatricians telling more mamas about the benefits of extended nursing? So many mainstream doctors tout ‘science’ as their basis for all decisions. Many of us natural mamas are ridiculed because we ‘don’t look at the science,’ (ahem…you know where we’re going with that!) and yet?

How many pediatricians tell mamas about the benefits of extended nursing and then share the SCIENCE behind it? We hear about the ‘science’ behind all sorts of OTHER things at the doctor’s office but somehow, the science behind extended nursing doesn’t make those well-baby checks, does it?

So, mamas–that’s our charge. If we want to see the change (and we most definitely do!) we need to be the change.

We need to continue to share the benefits of extended nursing with our sister mamas. When we are asked why we are ‘still’ nursing our four-year-old, let’s be honest (and gentle–more flies with honey than vinegar–) and share. There’s research and science out there now that we can give, and the reality is until we work to make sure that women know extended breastfeeding is ALSO a norm in many countries and that the average weaning age around the world is well past six months (typically until a child is at least two-years-old and in many places, longer).

We’ve already made such huge progress in working to normalize nursing.

Let’s continue to normalize nursing for as long as a mama and baby want. For bonding and so much more!

7 thoughts on “Study: Breastfeeding Duration Predicts a Mom’s Attentiveness to Child”

  1. Hi there – I used to work as a science journalist and I do appreciate that this post is based on a peer-reviewed study. However – the reason I wish to comment is that it landed on my Facebook feed, shared by a friend with no kids. And I have no kids. And there’s no way I will share a post like that with friends who do have kids. The reason is that young mums have multitudinous pressures on every single decision already. To the point where – and please excuse my language, it’s a direct quote – a friend recently commented when I shared a formal peer-reviewed study on digital screen use by under-2’s on my own Facebook account, that she was sick of social media content ‘undermining my already shitty parenting’. And she’s a fantastic mother of two children, one of whom was born 6 weeks’ premature. So I think she’s got a point. Further, decisions around breastfeeding are among the most fraught and guilt-ridden for a new mother, and I wonder whether Facebook is the best way of sharing this information. And if it is (because of its ubiquity), whether more sophisticated approaches to information sharing e.g. creating a means of feedback / Q&A might be useful if you really want the findings to disseminate among the (presumably) target audience and give voice to concern / guilt / worry / etc.

    With all good wishes.

    1. Thank you so much for this reply. I should’t have even read the article because of the guilt I already have for having to supplement with formula. And to not speak to the correlation between the ability to breastfeed and working and how that might affect attentiveness…ugh. Where are the studies that pile on the dad guilt. I need to go read some of those.

    2. While I understand the sentiment (one child I only nursed for 7 months), I disagree with your overall perspective. Some mothers are able to successfully breastfeed for an extended period of time. Those accomplishments should not be ignored, nor should studies be abandoned for fear of offending someone that could not breastfeed for a year or more. There is nothing wrong with this study showing a correlation between extended breastfeeding times and a more intuitive connection between a mother and a child. Never did it state the breastfeeding mother was superior to those that did not/could breastfeed at all/as long.
      It would be a shame for studies revolving the benefits of breastfeeding to cease so as not to offend.

  2. The implication is that breastfeeding causes maternal attentiveness, though the article only describes a correlation. Please clarify how the causation is shown. What was done to eliminate the possibility that more attentive moms stick with breastfeeding longer?

    1. Yes! This was my thought exactly! There is no causation mentioned in this article nor any information about how they ruled out other issues that may be involved in parental attentiveness. Were all the families from the same socio-economic class? The same family structure (two parents? single moms?)? Did they choose to stop breastfeeding for purely sentimental reasons? There is so much that needs clarification and young mothers DON’T need another half-assed study to make them feel guilty or pressured into a choice for their family.

  3. Great article. Unfortunately, we do have to accept facts that we sometimes don’t want to know, ( the scale every morning comes to mind)! When looking at breastfeeding in the world this is hardly startling information, and those who choose not to breastfeed or use multiple freeing sources have every right to to do that, it doesn’t change the facts, though, and simply covering our ears isn’t helpful. It is perfectly possible to be a great parent no matter your circumstances but we should still know the facts.

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