Breastfeeding, Oxytocin, and Neglect

The relationship between an infant and its mother is the single most important and enduring relationship for a child to develop in its life. But sometimes mothers do not develop an attachment to their babies, which may sometimes lead to emotional or physical neglect.

While there are many factors associated with maternal neglect, there is evidence that breastfeeding may have a protective effect. Promoting breastfeeding may be a simple and natural way to strengthen the mother-infant bond.

Maternal neglect represents a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between a mother and her child. My colleagues from The University of Queensland in Australia followed over 7,000 women and their children over a 15 year period. The study found that the longer the mother breastfed her child, the lower the risk that she would neglect her baby.

Breastfeeding an infant for at least 4 months was found to make the biggest difference. Mothers who breastfed for less than 4 months were more than twice as likely to neglect their children, compared with those who breastfed for four months or longer. Those who did not breastfeed at all were almost 4 times more likely to neglect their children than women who breastfed at least 4 months. We looked at possible confounding factors including socioeconomic status, maternal attitudes toward care giving, anxiety and depression, substance abuse, and how the mother felt about her pregnancy and her baby, but we still found that breastfeeding was the best predictor for establishing a strong mother-infant bond.

In trying to understand why breastfeeding had such an impact on maternal neglect, we thought that breastfeeding might stimulate oxytocin production in the brain, helping to strengthen the attachment bond of the mother and her baby. We also thought that there might be other factors related to the oxytocin system in the brain which might predispose a mother to successfully breastfeed and nurture her baby. Our next step in the research was to compare mothers’ release of the hormone oxytocin with their attachment patterns. We are currently exploring whether a nasal spray of oxytocin may alter some of these maternal brain and behavioral responses.

I will share the results of my latest research in a free public lecture on April 11, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women Conference Center. The topic will be: “Attachment, Breastfeeding & Your New Baby: What the Brain Has to Say.”

Dr. Lucy Puryear, Medical Director for the The Women’s Place – Center for Reproductive Psychiatry, will join me and discuss how breastfeeding affects the mother-infant bond and how postpartum depression can impact the mother-infant attachment. Visit the link to register: Visit the link for more information and to register: Attachment, Breastfeeding & Your New Baby.

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About Dr. Lane Strathearn, Developmental Pediatrician

I am an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.

I am a practicing developmental pediatrician, with a special clinical interest in evaluating and treating children with autism. My research interests include understanding the neurobiology of mother-child attachment and maternal neglect.

View all posts by Dr. Lane Strathearn, Developmental Pediatrician
Posted in Breastfeeding, Child Abuse, Motherhood, Parenting, Pavilion for Women, Psychology, Research