The Psychological Benefits of Breastfeeding on Mom & Baby

August 17, 2020

Breastfeeding can be one of the most soothing activities for a mother and baby. Key to the baby’s physical development – and even advantageous to the environment, as we recently learned from Jefferson Health Lactation Consultant Suzi Ryan – breastfeeding also hosts many long-lasting social and psychological benefits.

The driving force behind these benefits? Oxytocin.

Also known as our “happy hormone,” oxytocin – alongside prolactin – is released during breastfeeding, resulting in feelings of relaxation and security.

“It’s the same butterfly feeling you get when you hug someone you love,” said Jefferson Health Lactation Consultant Susan Fuchs. “It promotes positive emotional responses from both mother and baby.”

Studies have shown that this constant release of oxytocin can help decrease the mother’s cortisol (stress hormone) levels, thus improving sleep quality, lowering blood pressure, and even reducing the risk for postpartum depression.

Babies’ stress levels are also managed during this time; breastfeeding can impact the way they’ll handle stress for the rest of their life, explains Susan.

“If you breastfeed exclusively – meaning for the first six months – it sets the baby’s baseline stress level very low. Throughout life, they’ll naturally want to return to that low-stress state. If babies experience a lot of stress, they’re more likely to seek it as adults.”  

Studies have also shown that the skin-to-skin contact that takes place during breastfeeding can enhance a child’s confidence, maturity, and their ability to cope. Skin-to-skin and eye gazing, particularly, yield some of the most impactful benefits, as they create a strong, healthy infant-maternal bond.

Not only will a mother’s maternal sensitivity – or their reaction to their infant’s crying and other cues – improve, but so will the infant’s trust in their mother, adds Fuchs. Throughout the first six months of life, this intimate contact, such as the sound of the mother’s heartbeat as the infant’s head is pressed against their chest, ensures security and the fulfillment of basic biological needs.

“It’s actually proven that the more you hold a baby, the more independent they’ll grow up to be,” explained Fuchs. “It almost sounds ironic, but that strong sense of trust – that feeling that someone is always there to catch you when you fall – promotes a willingness to take risks.”

In addition to all of the advantages that result from the behavior itself, breastmilk, of course, is also healthier for a baby than formula is. Primarily, it decreases the risk of infant illness, but research also supports that the fatty acids it contains aid in neurological and cognitive development.

Conversely, if a mother experiences significant complications breastfeeding, her risk for postpartum depression may grow. This is just one reason why adequate breastfeeding support is so important, says Fuchs.

“Many women, unfortunately, stop breastfeeding much earlier than expected due to a lack of support,” said Fuchs. “As healthcare providers, it’s our responsibility to make lactation support readily available for new moms. We do everything we can to guide them through any possible complications, so they don’t miss out on all these wonderful benefits.”

At Jefferson Health – New Jersey, three clinical lactation consultants work week-long in the Women’s & Children’s Department, located out of Jefferson Washington Township Hospital. All moms have the opportunity to work with one.

For more information on Women’s & Children’s services offered at Jefferson Health – New Jersey, click HERE.