The Closest Bond
Population studies can only reveal associations rather than demonstrate cause and effect, but such studies suggest that breastfeeding may protect infants from a number of illnesses. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, these include diarrhea, lower respiratory tract illness, middle ear infections, urinary tract infections, allergies, and even some kinds of childhood cancers. Breastfeeding also seems to protect against obesity and diabetes and is associated with improved cognitive development.
Researchers have found that breastfeeding is also good for the health of mothers. Postpartum weight loss and uterine contraction are more rapid in breastfeeding women. Studies have identified a lower incidence of premenopausal breast cancer in women who have breast fed, as well as a decreased incidence of ovarian cancer.
Future Research, Future Tools
As good as the news is about breastfeeding, researchers believe that they are on the cusp of an even deeper understanding of breast milk and how it supports infant growth and development. “We are really trying to tease apart why breastfed infants are healthier,” explains Donovan. “What are those specific components in breast milk that are working alone or in combination that seem to be improving the overall health of the infant? I think we are on the verge of real breakthroughs in understanding infant nutrition.” It is knowledge that will translate into better health for all babies.
“Sometimes I’ll tell people,” says Donovan, “‘Well, there’s so much about human milk that we don’t know, but we are limited in the questions we can ask.’ We are trying to develop more noninvasive methods. What we really need is to be able to do tests where we can just collect urine, or even saliva or breath.” Meanwhile, Donovan and colleagues are developing tests in which they can conduct genetic analyses on cells collected from stool samples. Researchers are also trying to devise imaging techniques that are less invasive.
“Today we understand much more about how genes act, how they are regulated, how proteins are made,” explains Bo Lönnerdal, “and we have tools to survey breast milk proteins in a manner that we never had before and to understand their potential physiological function. I think that most of the very significant tools that will prove to be groundbreakers have been developed in the last 3-5 years. They are enabling us to dig deeper and dig broader. I think that we will see a lot of things happening in the very near future.”
One of the key areas that researchers will try to better understand are windows of opportunity, including differences between males and females, in the critical timing of development. “We have known for a long time, for instance,” says Donovan, “that male rat pups are more susceptible to zinc deficiency and its adverse affects than are female rats. Could there be different windows of opportunity when it comes to nutrition?”
And finally, there are those questions that extend beyond the laboratory. The psychological and emotional benefits of breastfeeding are clearly significant and researchers will continue to study them. But there is also a diverse group of researchers who believe that the bond between a nursing mother and child may have had far-reaching consequences in the development of social intelligence, compassion, and language.
Could the evolutionary innovation of lactation, the “milky way,” as anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy calls it in her book Mother Nature, really be that important? Could the prolonged intimacy between nursing mothers and infants really have had such profound consequences? Absolutely, says Hrdy.
“It is early days still in this remarkable research going on at the interface of genes, neuroscience, and behavior. Yet already it is clear that the ‘milky way’ initiated the evolution of a charmed relationship between dependent immatures and their hostess.”
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The Closest Bond
Related Health Centers:
Infant Nutrition Health Center, Mother-Baby Bond Health Center, Mother’s Milk Health Center, Monthly Infant Development Calendar Health Center,Weekly Pregnancy Calendar Health Center