Extended Breastfeeding: View from Neuroscience and Attachment
My adult daughter sent me a post warning mothers about 12 dangers of breast-feeding for too long. Some of the arguments in the article are in direct opposition to research in neurobiology and evidence-based attachment theory. I will address three of their so-called, “dangers”.
First, they warn of “over-attachment”. There is no such thing as “over-attachment”; there are only secure and insecure attachment styles (Bowlby, 1982). The “12 dangers” authors are against “attachment parenting” such as, “baby-wearing, co-sleeping, extended breast-feeding (past one year of age), and self-led weaning. They say there are “limited studies and no research to support the effectiveness of attachment parenting.” Untrue. Attachment Parenting International recommends that parents focus on the principle of “sensitive and responsive parenting” and only use what works in their system and leave the rest. There is a large body of research that sensitive, responsive parenting is beneficial. It protects children from the effects of toxic stress, helping children develop resiliency. The key to lowering stress is to follow the baby’s cues for when they need contact (provide a safe haven) and when they need to explore (provide a secure base) or be on their own. This sensitive parental attunement provides a secure attachment.
A second argument from the “12 dangers” post was that babies would become less independent. They report, “Studies show children breastfed beyond one year are less independent than those who were not.” (They do not reveal these sources). What defines “independence”? Independence may mean the child does not seek parental comfort or connection during play. But that child may have learned not to rely on the parents, and thus exhibits a defensive learned behavior rather than an actual preference for “independence”.
The authors of the “12 dangers” post also claim that the extended breastfed baby will be less likely to self-soothe, as they only use the breast for solace. Again, an assertion not supported by the facts. Once a baby learns, “When I need closeness, comfort, or food, my mother will nurse me”, this sets up a pathway in their brain that increases their confidence that their ability to reach out for their needs is likely to be met in the larger world. They have more trust in people and the environment, which can make them braver in expanding their circle of trust to the wider world. As a personal example, my 23-month-old grandson will confidently reach for the hand of another trusted adult, such as mine, his grandpa’s or his Dad’s, drag us toward where he wants us to go (often to the lake), or beg to be picked up if he is hurt. He also self-soothes by lying down and curling up on the couch.
From neuroscience we know that brain pathways are formed by early experience. If the track being laid down in toddlerhood is that the world is a safe place that meets my needs for both being seen, supported and soothed, then I will be a more stable adult.
There is significant science-based research to support extended breastfeeding. In an extensive study of 2900 mother infant pairs, breastfeeding for one year was found to be associated with better child mental health at every age up to age 14 (Oddy et al. 2009). Furthermore, LONGER duration (extended breastfeeding) was associated with even better mental health at every assessment. So for 14 years the researchers followed nearly 3000 children annually and found the best child mental health in the ones who had been breast-fed over one year.
What is the mechanism that produces the “better mental health” reported in the Oddy et al. study? Let’s zoom into the nursing couple. Part of it is the reciprocal effect of the mother-child nursing bond. The mother infant “nursing dyad” neurologically and chemically places the mother in sync with her baby. Baby sucking forges new neurochemical pathways in the mother’s brain that create and reinforce maternal behavior. Huge increases of oxytocin (the love hormone), result in a mother who is motivated, highly attentive, and aggressively protective. This “hormonal cascade” makes her brain want to respond to her baby and helps her interpret his needs effectively. As her blood oxytocin levels rise – this increases the love and ability to feel loved. Prolactin (parenting hormone) dampens fear and anxiety and inhibits the amygdala (emotionally over-reactive part of the brain). Prolactin inhibits the release of the stress hormone glucocorticoid (Kirsch 2005). Oxytocin is the body’s weapon against stress. The higher the oxytocin content in her blood, the more open to attachment and bonding the mother becomes (K. Uvnas-Moberg, 2003).
All that chemical magic helps protect the baby, lower the stress in Mom and helps her to be a more loving and responsive parent. I think extending all that goodness beyond age one is beneficial. Few babies are emotionally filled and ready to wean before the age of one. Although between 9 months to 3 years, babies need less milk, it is still good for the immune system as they still get 1/3 of their nutrition needs after age one from mother’s milk.
I have argued (based on strong science-based evidence) against the profile drawn in the “12 dangers” article, that the extended breastfed child is one who is overly attached, less independent and can’t self-soothe. I think extended breastfeeding is nature’s way of filling a baby’s need for intimacy and appropriate dependency on other people. Based on neuroscience and attachment theory, I believe a child that has an extended period of breastfeeding has an increased chance of growing up to be a sensitive and independent adult.
Here is a recommendation from a final source:
“It is the lucky baby, I feel, who continues to nurse until he is two”.
From the past US surgeon general (Antonia Novello, 1990-1993)
Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. Routledge
Kirsch, P. (2005) “Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and ear in humans". J. Neuroscience
Novella, A. (1991) quoted in www.askdrsears.com/topics/feeding-eating/breastfeeding/faqs/weaning
Oddy, WH. et al. (2010) “The long-term effects of breastfeeding on child and adolescent mental health: A pregnancy cohort study followed for 14 years”. J Pediatrics. April; 156(4): 568-74
Thomas, R. “12 Dangers of Breastfeeding for Too Long Most Moms Don’t Know About”. https://babygaga.com
Uvnas-Moberg, K. (2003) Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love andHealing. De Capo Press
Vincentia Schroeter is a psychotherapist who has done research on attachment between mothers and infants and studies interpersonal neurobiology. Look for her upcoming book on communication and follow her blog at vincentiaschroeterphd.com/blog