The Benefits of Breast Feeding

A growing mountain of evidence demonstrates that breast-feeding benefits babies, both psychologically and physically. Turns out it's good for moms, too.

Breast-feeding, researchers say, may actually reduce the level of stress hormones that flood a woman's body in response to difficult situations.

Scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health convinced a group of new mothers--some breast-feeders, some not--to spend 20 less-than-idyllic minutes on a treadmill that became progressively steeper and faster. It's the same challenging "stress test" doctors use to assess cardiovascular health.

During the test, levels of stress hormones like cortisol and ACTH increased in all the women. But in lactating moms, hormone levels rose only a third to half as much as in moms who relied on bottles, Margaret Altemus, M.D., and colleagues report in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (Vol. 80, No. 9)

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Researchers haven't yet sorted out the chemical cascade through which lactation alters stress response. But figuring out the process "may lead us to new treatments for anxiety disorders not just in lactating women, but for everyone," contends Altemus, chief of the institute's adult OCD research unit.

As for why a woman's body would mute the stress response during breast-feeding, Altemus and colleagues offer three theories (more than one of which could be correct). One possibility is to keep a nursing mom's immune system healthy and happy; stress can wreak havoc on the immune system.

Or it might be an energy conservation strategy. Both stress and milk production tax the body's resources; cutting back on the stress response may help ensure new mothers have enough nutrients left to produce nourishing milk.

Finally, the connection between breast-feeding and stress reduction could serve as a sort of, well, sanity-preserver. The care and feeding of an infant can seem overwhelming in the best of circumstances. If a new mother's stress system were to kick in full-throttle every time the baby cries or spits up, motherhood might seem even more psychologically challenging than it already is.

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