Mothers who breast-feed are less likely to abuse or neglect their babies than either women who do not nurse or those who nurse for fewer than four months.
Lane Strathearn, M.D., a pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, speculates that the hormone oxytocin, released during lactation, has a calming effect on new mothers and allows them to better cope with childrearing.
Oxytocin is known to augment maternal behavior in rats. Researchers have also shown that rat pups who receive breast milk and adequate maternal care develop more receptors for oxytocin, making them, in turn, less likely to abuse or neglect their offspring.
Strathearn drew his conclusions about maternal care in humans by matching surveys on breast-feeding in more than 7,000 infants with reports of later child abuse.
The findings were presented at the recent International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect.