The unique composition of breast milk makes it a perfect food for the infant. It provides short-term as well as long-term nutritional and immunological benefits to the little one.

Besides providing physical strength to the baby, breastfeeding also has a positive impact on the baby’s brain, cognition, thought process, behavior and overall mental and emotional well-being.

Studies have reported that infants who are breastfed non-exclusively are at a higher risk of depression, anxiety disorders, lower IQ and poor cognition as compared to exclusively breastfed infants.

Emotional and Psychological Effects of Breastfeeding on Baby

Let’s throw some light on the emotional and psychological effects of breastfeeding on the baby:

Impact on The Brain Development

Numerous studies have reported that breast milk may impact early brain development, with vital biological, medical and social implications.

Breastfeeding enhances neurodevelopment later in life. Breastfeeding influences mature brain volume and boosts brain growth. It further promotes the development of white matter, which is linked to better IQ.

Breast milk contains thyroxin, a nerve growth factor that influences cerebral development. Cerebrum is the main part of the brain that controls senses, thoughts and movements.

Breastfeeding further promotes myelination, a process in which a protective layer is formed around the a nerve, allowing the nerve impulses to move more quickly. This process plays a central role in the brain development.

Emotional Health

Breastfeeding

Infants who are breastfed exclusively had decreased odds of difficulties with emotional symptoms as compared to infants who were never breastfed, confirms a study.

Another research observed that infants who were breastfed for less than 6 months had poorer behavior as compared to the infants who were breastfed for more than 6 months. The behavior further improved with each additional month of breastfeeding.

An interesting study found that, infants who were never breastfed or those who were formula-fed displayed anti-social type of behavior in childhood or adolescence.

An interaction between the mother and the infant during breastfeeding, leads to better learning of acceptable behavior in the children during adolescence and adulthood. Exclusively breastfed infants as they grow up are calm and composed and less hyperactive.

Cognition

Child

Breastfeeding enhances cognitive development and emotional interactions between the mother and her little one. When compared to formula-feeding, studies reported that breastfeeding is associated with improved cognitive development from infancy to adolescence.

Breast milk provides nutrients required for the development of the immature brain. The positive correlation between breastfeeding and cognitive development may be because breast milk supports the development of the brain of the newborn baby.

Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids like docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid present in the human milk promote optimal visual and cognitive development. These fatty acids improve memory, ability to learn as well as thought process.

The physical contact between the mother and the infant during breastfeeding increases the visual attention of the baby. Furthermore, when the mother breastfeeds the infant, he/ she experiences more cognitive assimilation and control.

Hence, breastfeeding for longer than 9 months may improve the cognitive development.

Depression

Child

The adult vulnerability to depression may have its origins in early childhood. Studies have claimed that exclusive breastfeeding during infancy reduces the risk of depression in adulthood.

Infants who are never breastfed are at a higher risk of depression and hostility in adulthood. The nutrients present in the breast milk have a direct effect on the child’s hormone and neurotransmitter functioning.

Fatty acids present in human milk enhance the brain development of the child via hormonal processes. Therefore, infants who are breastfed are less prone to depression during adulthood.

While breastfeeding, the level of a hormone called ‘oxytocin’ increases in mother’s and infant’s brain. This hormone improves social bonding and reduces depression and anxiety disorders in the future.

Furthermore, skin-to-skin contact during breastfeeding has shown to reduce irritability and aggression in pre-school children.

Lower expression of estrogen receptor is related to major mental problems like depression in the future. Studies have found that oxytocin alters estrogen expression and reduces the incidence of depression later in life.

Psychosocial Stress

Breastfeeding

Studies have reported that exclusive breastfeeding may result in well controlled stress response, which can decrease stress related anxiety.

Early maternal contact like skin-to-skin contact during lactation supports the development of the neuroendocrine systems involved in the stress response.

Maternal touch and contact during nursing enhances the ability of the infant to cope up with stressful events in adulthood.

An interesting study found that negative or stressful events were associated with greater anxiety among children who were not breastfed as compared to the breastfed children.

Breastfeeding enhances the activity of happy hormones in the brain and reduces the action of stress hormones. This helps in the better management of stress and anxiety as adults.

Furthermore, exclusive breastfeeding has a positive impact on the psychological development of the infant. It is also associated with the infant’s temperament, including the way they react and regulate their emotions.

Autism Prevention

Child

Studies have put forward breastfeeding rates, timings and optimality as environmental risk factors for autism. Research studies have observed that breastfeeding protects against autism spectrum disorder.

Breastfeeding promotes development of the neural system that may help in the prevention of autism in children. Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid like DHA present in the breast milk helps in the development of brain cells.

An interesting study found that infants who were never breastfed as compared to infants who were exclusively breastfed were at a greater risk of autistic disorder.

It was further found that the use of infant formula without arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid were also associated with an increase in the odds of having autistic disorder.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a neurodevelopment disorder. Breast milk contains certain fatty acids that may postpone the onset of the illness in schizophrenic patients.

Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids present in breast milk slow down the onset of such a disorder. These essential fatty acids play a vital role in the normal brain development.

Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder

Child

ADHD is a neurobehavioral disorder in children. A highly significant inverse relationship has been observed between exclusive 6 months breastfeeding and ADHD, reports a scientific study.

Another study observed that short duration of breastfeeding is considered a risk factor of ADHD symptoms, which include:

  1. Difficulty in focusing
  2. Forgetfulness
  3. Absent-mindedness
  4. Short attention span
  5. Hyperactivity
  6. Repetition of words or actions

Breast milk contains certain unique factors that protect against the onset of ADHD in children and adolescents.

Besides this, a special bond is formed between the mother and the infant during breastfeeding, which makes the infant less hyperactive as an adult.

The risk of ADHD was previously higher in children who were formula-fed as infants. This is due to the high content of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to manufacture baby bottles and formula cans.

BPA is a harmful neurotoxic chemical, which has negative effects on the brain. It interferes with the development and function of the brain.

Recently, the use of BPA is reduced in the production of formula cans, which has resulted in reduced incidence of ADHD. However, parents must carefully choose BPA-free baby bottles for feeding their little one.

Bottom-Line

  1. Breastfeeding helps in the development of each part of the brain. It improves cognition, concentration levels as well as memory.
  2. Besides this, breastfeeding also has a positive impact on the way a person thinks and reacts to different situations.
  3. Lactation also helps in the better stress management as adults. The incidence of depression and anxiety in adulthood is less in exclusively breastfed infants.
  4. All these emotional and psychological benefits are attributed to the presence of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids- DHA and AA in breast milk.
  5. The maternal diet may influence the unique composition of breast milk. A diet low in DHA may result in low concentration of DHA in the breast milk.
  6. Therefore, mothers need to increase their intake of these essential fatty acids via supplements or diet.

References

  1. Loret de Mola, C., Horta, B. L., Gonçalves, H., Quevedo, L. de A., Pinheiro, R., Gigante, D. P., … Barros, F. C. (2016). Breastfeeding and mental health in adulthood: A birth cohort study in Brazil. Journal of Affective Disorders, 202, 115–119. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2016.05.055
  2. Lind, J. N., Li, R., Perrine, C. G., & Schieve, L. A. (2014). Breastfeeding and Later Psychosocial Development of Children at 6 Years of Age. Pediatrics, 134(Suppl 1), S36–S41. http://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2014-0646G
  3. Lee, H., Park, H., Ha, E., Hong, Y.-C., Ha, M., Park, H., … Kim, Y. (2016). Effect of Breastfeeding Duration on Cognitive Development in Infants: 3-Year Follow-up Study. Journal of Korean Medical Science, 31(4), 579–584. http://doi.org/10.3346/jkms.2016.31.4.579
  4. Isaacs, E. B., Fischl, B. R., Quinn, B. T., Chong, W. K., Gadian, D. G., & Lucas, A. (2010). Impact of breast milk on IQ, brain size and white matter development. Pediatric Research, 67(4), 357–362. http://doi.org/10.1203/PDR.0b013e3181d026da
  5. Päivi Merjonen, Markus Jokela, Johanna Salo, et al., “Moderation of Breastfeeding Effects on Adult Depression by Estrogen Receptor Gene Polymorphism,” Child Development Research, vol. 2012, Article ID 290862, 8 pages, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/290862.
  6. Montgomery, S. M., Ehlin, A., & Sacker, A. (2006). Breast feeding and resilience against psychosocial stress. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 91(12), 990–994. http://doi.org/10.1136/adc.2006.096826
  7. Eivind Ystrom, Breastfeeding cessation and symptoms of anxiety and depression: a longitudinal cohort study, BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2012. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2393-12-36
  8. Manohar H, Pravallika M, Kandasamy P, Chandrasekaran V, Rajkumar RP. Role of Exclusive Breastfeeding in Conferring Protection in Children At-Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder: Results from a Sibling Case-control Study. J Neurosci Rural Pract. 2018 Jan-Mar;9(1):132-136. doi: 10.4103/jnrp.jnrp_331_17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29456357
  9. Tseng PT, Chen YW, Stubbs B, Carvalho AF, Whiteley P, Tang CH, Yang WC, Chen TY, Li DJ, Chu CS, Yang WC, Liang HY, Wu CK, Yen CF, Lin PY. Maternal breastfeeding and autism spectrum disorder in children: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Neurosci. 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29046132
  10. Kadziela-Olech H, Piotrowska-Jastrzebska J. The duration of breastfeeding and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Rocz Akad Med Bialymst. 2005. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16358988
  11. Mazahery, H., Stonehouse, W., Delshad, M., Kruger, M. C., Conlon, C. A., Beck, K. L., & von Hurst, P. R. (2017). Relationship between Long Chain n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Case-Control and Randomised Controlled Trials. Nutrients, 9(2), 155. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu9020155
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