Breast-feeding and Stress
Breast-feeding may reduce a woman’s stress level.
One of the many decisions facing new mothers today is whether they should breast-feed or bottle-feed their child. One advantage of breast-feeding scientists only recently began investigating is a reduction in stress. Researchers have found some evidence that a mother’s stress level is lowered as she breast-feeds her child. The problem with this research, however, is that it has not controlled for other factors that may be responsible for the relationship between breast-feeding and stress reduction. For example, perhaps women who choose to bottle-feed are also more prone to be anxious or stressed, which limits their production of breast milk and forces them to choose bottle-feeding. In this case, how easily the woman becomes anxious, instead of the fact she doesn’t breast-feed, is what causes her more stress. To help determine whether breast-feeding really does cause a reduction in stress, researchers from
and State University of New York at Stony Brook conducted an experiment. Columbia University
What was the research about?
The experiment involved 28 mothers who were both breast-feeding and bottle-feeding when they were recruited for the study. The experiment consisted of 2 sessions that were scheduled one week apart. The first session began with each mother completing a questionnaire that measured the positive and negative aspects of her current mood. Afterwards she rested for 10 minutes and then either breast-fed or bottle-fed her child. After feeding her child she rested for another 10 minutes and then completed the same questionnaire as before. After 1 week each mother returned for the second experimental session. The procedure for the second session was identical to the first session except this time each mother fed her child in the opposite way. So if a mother breast-fed her child during the first session, she bottle-fed her child during the second session and vice-versa. Conducting the experiment this way allowed the experimenters to control for the influence of other factors that may have affected the results.
The results indicated that when a mother breast-fed her child, the negative aspects of her mood decreased while the positive aspects remained the same. Thus, breast-feeding reduced stress by reducing negative mood but did not actually increase positive mood. Based on the way this experiment was conducted, the act of breast-feeding, rather than some other aspect, appears to be the cause of stress reduction in mothers who breast-feed.
Why should it matter to me?
If breast-feeding reduces stress, this is an important consideration when a woman is deciding whether or not to breast-feed her child. Given that women are somewhat more vulnerable to psychological disorders immediately following childbirth (e.g., postpartum depression), the stress-reduction role of breast-feeding may help buffer this risk. Even without considering psychological disorders, the time after childbirth is a time of great change and increased stress. Mothers, especially first time mothers, can use breast-feeding as an opportunity to help reduce their stress.
Source: Mezzacappa, E. S., & Katkin, E. S. (2002). Breast-feeding is associated with reduced perceived stress and negative mood in mothers. Health Psychology, 21, 187-193.