Sunday, January 24, 2010
Why Would Breastfed Children Be Less Depressed?
I had an interesting call this week from a reporter. A new study is being released showing that children who were breastfed for 6 months or longer were significantly less likely be depressed several years later. Did I have any ideas about why they might have found that?
Actually, I did. It all comes back to the human stress response.
We know from a number of different studies that women who breastfeed past six months are doing a lot of things differently than women who stop in the first few weeks. For example, women who are still breastfeeding at six months are more likely to sleep near their babies, increasing the ease of nighttime breastfeeding while also sustaining their milk supply. These mothers are more likely to practice babywearing, or carrying their babies on their bodies rather than in a carseat or stroller. Finally, they are more likely to breastfeed their babies on cue rather than according to a schedule.
It's this total constellation of behaviors that sustains breastfeeding past the first few days and weeks, and I believe it accounts for the lower rates of depression among breastfed children. This pattern of behavior increases mothers' responsiveness to their babies, which lowers babies' stress levels. That is the key to understanding their lower risk.
When babies are ignored, or left to cry it out, their stress levels rise. If this only happens from time to time, babies adapt. But when this pattern becomes the norm, it has a fundamental effect on babies' developing brains. When their brains are bathed in stress hormones on a regular basis, they become more vulnerable to stress. Further, their bodies become hyper-responsive to stressful stimuli. That increases their vulnerability to depression not only in childhood, but throughout their lives.
By breastfeeding, and parenting in a responsive way, mothers are ensuring that their babies are not chronically stressed--and that shows up years later as decreased rates of depression and myriad other health problems.
Can a non-breastfeeding mother get the same effect? Yes, of course. But she will consciously need to be responsive to her baby's cues. From a practical standpoint, the beauty of breastfeeding is that this responsiveness is built into the system.
I think the takeaway message from this study is that responsive parenting does make a difference in how children fare throughout their lives. So it's something important for parents to consider next time someone advises them to let their babies cry it out.