Stressful mothers make unhealthy babies
In the first a thousand days of childhood, children are most vulnerable to various harms from the adverse environment. Early infancy, therefore, is critical in the development of long-term health.
For a long time, we thought that the physical health of mothers is the main contributing factor to infants’ growth. Still, there was not enough attention to the mental health of breastfeeding mothers.
Image adapted from: https://www.moneycrashers.com/benefits-breastfeeding-mother-baby-tips/.
Breast milk is the key source of infant nutrition as it provides many antibodies that protect the baby’s health and strengthen their immune system. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for the first six months of infancy. In line with the WHO, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends mothers to continue breastfeeding infants by introducing appropriate solid foods until 1-year-old.
But do you know that mother’s stress during the breastfeeding period will change the composition of breast milk and affect infants’ growth?
The mental stress of breastfeeding mothers is found to be associated with infants’ early behaviour and temperament. The difference in infant’s behavioural development and health may be related to the change in breast milk composition. Stressful mothers have a high level of stress hormones such as cortisol in blood and blood cortisol are transmitted to breast milk. Therefore, mothers’ psychological state may shape infants’ early behaviour by sending bioactive factors in breast milk.
Besides the impact on behavioural development in infants, breast milk is also crucial to infants’ growth. In the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) Conference this year, Dr. Anna Zionkiewicz has highlighted that maternal stress changes the composition of breast milk, especially the fatty acids. Stress hormones such as cortisol secreted by stressed mothers will lead to an increase in long-chain mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids in the breast milk. The change in milk composition causes the low body weight of infants.
Recent research has shown that relaxation therapy in mothers during breastfeeding can improve mothers’ psychological state. This therapy helps them to be less stressed or more relaxed and improved infants’ behaviour and growth due to reduced cortisol level in breast milk. Moreover, less stressful mothers spend a longer time with their infants to comfort their infants and subsequently improved infants’ sleep.
It is not easy to make a change, and the relaxation therapy takes time. All mothers need and deserve support from their family and friends. Remember that seeking professional help is crucial as it affects not only mothers’ health but also babies’ early development.
A happy mother makes a healthy baby!
If you are interested in the international DOHaD conference held this week in Melbourne, check out my teammate Jenna’s blog: https://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/sciencecommunication/2019/10/23/how-to-save-the-life-of-the-one-you-love-most/
Imaged adapted from: https://www.facebook.com/DOHaD2019/about/.
Some websites that may help you know more about maternal stress and some suggestions to manage it:
The Department of Health 2018, Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy: 2018 and Beyond, Commonwealth of Australia, Australia, viewed 23rd October 2019, <https://consultations.health.gov.au/population-health-and-sport-division/breastfeeding/supporting_documents/Draft%20Australian%20National%20Breastfeeding%20Strategy%20%20%20PDF%20version.pdf>.
Mohd Shukri, NH, Wells, J, Eaton, S, Mukhtar, F, Petelin, A, Jenko-Praznikar, Z & Fewtrell, M 2019, ‘Randomized controlled trial investigating the effects of a breastfeeding relaxation intervention on maternal psychological state, breast milk outcomes, and infant behaviour and growth’, American Society for Nutrition, vol. 110, no. 1, pp. 121-130.