- Newborns who were breastfed for at least six weeks were less likely to develop special education needs, per a new study. Tweet This
- Babies who were exclusively breastfed for the first six weeks had a reduced risk of social emotional behavioral problems, communication issues, sensory impairments, and more. Tweet This
- If mothers can exclusively breastfeed even for a short period of time, it is far better for babies physically, emotionally, and neurologically. Tweet This
“Breast is best” is a popular saying that is primarily related to the immunological properties of breastmilk that physiologically protect the baby in the first months of life. A new study shows there is more to breastmilk than just its immunological properties. Published in the journal PLOS Medicine, the study looked at the relationship between breastfeeding infants and special education needs. It found that newborns who were breastfed for at least six weeks were less likely to develop special education needs.
The study out of the University of Glasgow analyzed data of 191,745 children born in Scotland from 2003 comparing health and education and breastfeeding data from children in state schools. The study confirmed that children who were both exclusively and mixed fed with a bottle and breast in the first 6 weeks did better than children who were exclusively bottle fed.
The World Health Organization has long held that breastfeeding for the first 6 months and up to the first two years is recommended for health reasons. Psychoanalysts and attachment researchers have always held that breastfeeding is about more than just the milk, but has a great deal to do with attachment, the skin-to-skin contact, and the emotional security that results from breastfeeding. Babies are neurologically fragile when they are born, and the physical intimacy and emotional closeness that breastfeeding brings far outweighs bottle feeding. This latest study indicates that even if you cannot breastfeed for the first 6 months, breastfeeding for just the first 6 weeks helps a baby to transition and has an impact upon their right—or social emotional—brain development, which is the precursor to cognitive development and learning later in school.
In addition, the study found that children who were exclusively breastfed for the first six weeks had a reduced risk of social emotional behavioral problems, communication issues, sensory impairments, physical health conditions, and physical motor disabilities as well as learning disabilities.
There are some mothers who cannot breastfeed for one reason or another, and this does not mean that their children will not be healthy. There are ways to mitigate the differences between breastfeeding and bottle feeding, if breastfeeding is not an option. One problem with bottle feeding is that it interferes with the natural skin-to-skin contact of breastfeeding. When bottle feeding, mothers usually feed their babies fully clothed, losing that skin-to-skin contact, and they do not always assume the physical position of breastfeeding, which obligates mothers to look down at their babies and interact emotionally and intimately. Skin-to-skin and eye contact are important—breastfeeding or not—because they allow mothers to release the hormone oxytocin, leading to emotional bonding and feelings of intense love and protectiveness. This, in turn, regulates a baby’s physiological stress and cortisol levels. Mothers who can’t breastfeed can recreate the same physical contact with bottle feeding by holding babies close to their bare skin and by allowing babies to touch them and make eye contact in a similar way to a baby who is breastfed.
This study helps to reinforce the importance of breastfeeding. If mothers can exclusively breastfeed even for a short period of time, it is far better for babies physically, emotionally, and neurologically with outcomes that cast a long shadow on a child’s ability to later regulate emotions, to communicate, and to learn.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst and author of Being There Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters and Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.