Breastfeeding is one of the most natural ways for a mother to bond with her baby. The very sight of a hungry baby or even his soft cry often induces a letdown. While there is an obvious scientific explanation for this, the phenomenon is a beautiful, emotionally charged moment. So for now, let’s leave the science of it for later and try to understand the benefits, including the psychological benefits of breastfeeding.
First, let’s quickly go through some general benefits of breastfeeding for babies that you may or may not know about.
Breastfeeding for Babies: How Does It Help Them?
There is compelling evidence that breastfeeding is much more beneficial for infants than alternative feeding methods.
That said, the alternatives are not bad for the nutrition of the baby. However, for a baby, breastfeeding is much more than just a source of nutrition.
Yes, breastmilk is rich in nutrients tailor-made exactly for your little one! It is perfect for that particular feed. In addition to nutrients for the growing baby, breastmilk contains essential immunoglobulins providing the child with the immunity she needs.
Sometimes, when the baby has a fever, the mother can produce antibodies against that infection and pass it to the child through the breastmilk.
The production of breastmilk is in alignment with the needs of the baby. As the baby grows, the breastmilk changes in quantity as well as quality.
The physical characters of the breastmilk are different for a newborn, a three-month-old exclusively breastfed baby, and a nine-month-old who is being weaned to eat solid food.
Breastmilk provides the baby with essential nutrients like DHA required for the proper development of the brain. So, what is a complete food for three-month-old baby transitions to become an additional source of nutrition for a toddler!
Physical and Psychological Benefits of Breastfeeding for Babies
In countries where infant mortality is high, breastfeeding little ones essentially means better immunity, reduced under-two mortality rates, and better physical and mental development of the child.
There is a substantial reduction in the hospital visits for diarrhoea and lower respiratory tract infections. In addition, for babies who are exclusively breastfed, there is a significant reduction in the incidences of gastrointestinal disturbances as well as allergic episodes.
These are the physical benefits of breastfeeding.
However, for a baby, breastfeeding has immense long-lasting benefits when it comes to his emotional and psychological development as well.
A child who is breastfed gets the right quantity of food immediately at the perfect temperature. Who would not love getting meals like that?
In addition, the very act of breastfeeding appeals to the baby’s sense of smell, touch and taste at the same time. The scent of his mother becomes associated with nutrition and pacification, and soon a conditioned reflex is formed. Thus, even when he is not breastfeeding, he feels calm and secure in his mother’s arms.
The time spent together is a great way to bond and is just one of the psychological benefits of breastfeeding for the baby. However, it is not just the baby that benefits from it. It has an immense impact on the psychological state of a mother as well.
Psychological Benefits of Breastfeeding for the Mum
There are immense psychological benefits of breastfeeding for the mum.
Milk production is regulated by hormones. The most important hormone for this is Prolactin which is secreted by the pituitary gland in response to the baby’s hunger.
Prolactin is responsible for the development of the lactation system during pregnancy and milk production during breastfeeding.
However, this is not the only function of Prolactin. It has another important function in the brain – to make you feel happy.
It does so by reducing the hormonal effects of stress on the brain. Prolactin helps the mum-to-be by reducing the stress of pregnancy and delivery.
However, once the breastfeeding stops, the levels of Prolactin go back to normal. So, a breastfeeding mum is seen to be a bit calmer than the mums who have switched to alternatives.
Pregnancy, delivery, childcare – all are very stressful things. Breastfeeding helps the mum to tackle them effectively with the help of the very hormone that is responsible for her milk production! The human body is just amazing!
Breastfeeding and Bonding
As much as 20% of women suffer from post-partum depression. If the mum bonds well with the baby early on in life, the incidence of PPD decreases.
This improves the quality of childcare she imparts to the child. Breastfeeding helps the mum to develop this bond much more effectively. For a breastfeeding mum, even the voice or sight of the baby after a long time can induce a letdown. That is why many mums who pump at work watch a video of their baby or even Facetime her!
This bond goes beyond just the initial breastfeeding phase. The bond strengthens as the baby grows up. Even though a baby is being weaned, she still wants breastmilk because it makes her feel better.
For the mother, it is one of the greatest feelings as something remains constant in this rapidly changing world of new motherhood! Later on, many mums adopt a “don’t offer, don’t refuse” strategy. And they sometimes end up breastfeeding even past the age of five.
Breastfeeding Can Be Stressful Though
We are fully aware that breastfeeding doesn’t always come naturally for the mother and the child. So, it can be very stressful at times. There are times when the baby cries even after a feed. You may be worried that the baby is not getting enough milk, or, at times, you may feel inadequate.
Sometimes, the baby bites, injuring the nipple-areola complex, and making each subsequent feed immensely painful. Feeding the baby round the clock can affect the mum’s nutrition, and it definitely affects her sleep. Her daily life is affected as well.
All these combined may deter some mums from continuing to breastfeed. However, a few do go beyond all of this, and the stress does not bother them anymore. Even if a few do stop breastfeeding, that does not make them less of a mum.
Mums, what we are probably trying to say is breastfeeding has immense benefits for you. And if you do continue to breastfeed beyond the recommended 24 months, it will benefit both you and the baby immensely. If you find breastfeeding challenging, you should speak to a lactation consultant or an experienced breastfeeding mum for advice and tips to overcome those challenges.
If all fails, and you decide to stop breastfeeding, don’t worry. This doesn’t make you any less of a mother and you can still bond effectively with your little one.
- Long-term effects of breastfeeding, a systematic review. World Health Organization.
- The optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding: a systematic review. Kramer MS, Kakuma R, Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology 2004;554:63-77.
- Breastfeeding – deciding when to stop. Victoria State Government.
Also read: 3 times when it is OK to stop breastfeeding