Nursed babies less prone to abuse

Nursed babies less prone to abuse

  • Julia Medew
  • January 27, 2009

WOMEN who do not breastfeed their infants are nearly four times more likely to neglect and abuse their child, a world-first study of Australian women has found.

The analysis of about 6000 Queensland mothers and their children also discovered that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the less likely she is to neglect or hurt her child.

To reach their findings, researchers from the University of Queensland linked data from Australia’s largest longitudinal study tracking mothers and their children with substantiated reports of maltreatment recorded by the state’s child protection authorities.

They found that of the 1421 women who did not breastfeed their children in the group, 102 women — or 7.2 per cent — neglected or abused their child in some way.

This was compared to 4.8 per cent of the 2584 women who breastfed their baby for less than four months and just 1.6 per cent of the 2616 women who breastfed their baby for more than four months.

Maltreatment included neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual assault. Neglect was the most common form identified in the study, but the prevalence of all types increased as the duration of breastfeeding decreased.

When the researchers adjusted the statistics for 5890 cases to filter out the influence of other factors, they concluded that women who did not breastfeed were 3.8 times more likely to maltreat their child.

For mothers who breastfed for less than four months, the risk was about 2.3 times that of women who breastfed for longer than four months.

Lane Strathearn, author of the research due to be published in the journal Pediatrics next month, said the conclusions were bolstered by research linking breastfeeding to the release of oxytocin, a hormone proven to activate areas of the brain linked to maternal care and behaviour in animals.

The physical bond created during breastfeeding, including eye contact, could also be a factor, he said.

Dr Strathearn concluded that the promotion of breastfeeding could be a relatively simple and cost-effective way of strengthening the relationship between mothers and babies to prevent child neglect and abuse.

“This overarching goal would be best accomplished by promoting parent education and long-term marital stability and by providing economic and social support for new mothers who choose to stay at home with their infants,” he said.

Deputy Director of the Women’s and Children’s Health Research Institute in South Australia, Dr Maria Makrides, said people should not interpret the absence of breastfeeding or low rates as a direct cause of neglect and abuse. “I don’t necessarily think that by increasing the breastfeeding rate, we are going to wipe out neglect and abuse,” she said.

Australian Breastfeeding Association president Querida David said the study was consistent with other research.


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