Science Explains How Your Emotions While Breastfeeding Can Affect Your Baby

by Cat Bowen

Being a new mom is incredibly stressful. Even if you already have a kid (or three), having a baby upsets the balance of almost everything around you. You're going to experience the highest of highs, and some pretty low lows, too. It is understandable that you would wonder how your emotions might affect your little one, especially during certain intimate times, like when you're breastfeeding or cuddling together late at night. These are the times you're closest, and when you're at your most vulnerable. But can your emotions affect baby when breastfeeding?

There is a lot that is happening when you're breastfeeding, many of which are occurring in your baby's developing brain, according to a study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience. The biggest concern that is noted in this study is the development of a child's emotional discrimination. "The ability to perceive and distinguish between the emotional states of others is a crucial social skill that helps us predict others’ actions and guide our own behavior during social interactions." The period of bonding that happens during breastfeeding, helps define for babies what emotions are through the interaction between mother and child. This study posits that through the oxytocin in the milk, and the feeling of intimacy shared, that exclusively breastfed infants are "associated with an increased sensitivity to positive emotional information."

But that only answers the questions about happy moments. I know for a fact that I wasn't always flooded with happy emotions every time I went to breastfeed my children. In fact, there were times, especially in the beginning, when my child would be at my breast, and I would be openly weeping from being overwhelmed. If you've ever cluster fed a baby with reflux or colic, you know of which I speak.

Science has an answer, or at least a theory to what is happening when stressed to the max mothers are breastfeeding their children. Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD of Harvard University wrote that a study confirmed that the milk of mothers with postpartum depression had lower levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA). That is "Immunoglobulins or antibodies are passed from the mother to the baby through the breast milk and help to confer immunity." She said that the study found that it wasn't just depression either, it's also anxiety, and noted that "women who reported higher levels of negative affect and/or anxiety...had lower levels of breast milk IgA."

In addition to that little tidbit of joy, The Independent wrote about a study that found that cortisol — the hormone released under stressful situations — has been found in breast milk, and it was shown to affect boys and girls differently. Katie Hinde, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told The Independent that "female babies fed on breast milk with relatively high concentrations of cortisol showed behavioral changes, such as irritability, fear, anger and discomfort, which were not shown in sons fed on breast milk with similar concentrations of the hormone."

Don't let this rush you to formula feed, because that's not all that breastfeeding does. The same study that showed that breastfeeding teaches happy social cues, also noted that just the act of breastfeeding, regardless of whether you're in a good mood or a bad one, has real, definable, emotional benefits for your child.

No one is perfect, and everyone freaks out occasionally. Having your child see your emotions and learn how to interact with their own via your modeling behaviors, is an essential piece of their development, according to Developmental Psychopathology. Researchers noted that "Relationship quality, in turn, depends on the fit among the infant’s needs and capacities to respond, the mother’s provision of necessary experiences, and the emotional tone of their interactions." Because babies will mimic what you do, and that mimicry sticks — that's what really matters in the end.