Breastfeeding Could Help Infants Control Stress

It could be time to add another item to the long list of the benefits of breastfeeding. A new study from Brown University and the University of Utah suggests that breastfeeding may help babies control their stress.

The study followed 42 women over five months. Half breastfed or bottle fed their new babies with breast milk, and the other half used formula.

Researchers found the brains of babies who consumed breast milk were better able to dampen stress levels under stressful circumstances.

Dr. Elisabeth Conradt, an author on the study, told the Mountain West News Bureau the study is the first to look at breastfeeding as it relates to caregiving behavior and infant stress responses. However, Conradt said it’s hard to extrapolate what this could mean for children long term.

“I think though that this could set up the child to maybe be a little bit more calm and maybe a little less stressed right from birth,” she said.

Of course, some women can’t breastfeed and many choose not to. Conradt said the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, doesn’t exclude them.

“I think it was encouraging in this study that we also found these effects of moms who were also bottle feeding with breast milk,” she said.

Conradt said more research is needed to understand what role the consumption of breast milk plays versus the physical touch of breastfeeding itself.

“Nurturing behavior controls a specific gene that regulates the infant’s physiological response to stress,” according to lead study author Dr. Barry Lester, director of the Center for the Study of Children at Risk at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Researchers studied levels of the stress hormone cortisol. When infants were exposed to a stressful situation - their mothers ignoring them - researchers found less evidence of a “fight-or-flight” stress response in the babies who had nursed.

“Cortisol is part of the body’s ‘flight or fight’ reaction, the body’s major response to stress, and too much or too little cortisol can be harmful and is related to a wide range of mental and physical health disorders in children and adults,” Lester told Reuters Health.