For our last Guest Post Week feature (well, thumb not counting FFF Friday tomorrow), I chose a submission from Joy Paley, a blogger and writer.
Study reports (surprise) no difference in psychological health or infant attachment between breast and formula feeding moms
I know you frequent readers of FFF might initially roll your eyes at this study about maternal happiness, since its conclusions may seem obvious. The research, which looked at psychological health of new moms and their attachment levels to their infants, showed no significant difference in these arenas between women who were breastfeeding and those who had weaned their babies.
The research, out of the School of Psychology at Australian National University, isn’t terribly new; it was published in The Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology in 2006, but there are so many gems in it that when I found it I knew I had to share. It directly challenges many popular notions about breastfeeding and maternal health and is refreshingly unlike the scientific rhetoric in other studies that FFF has helpfully picked apart before.
For one, the authors directly recognize that maternal happiness has not even been mentioned in the large amounts of literature that have come out in support of breastfeeding. In their focus on physiological and immunological benefits of breastfeeding, these studies have completely left out the experience of the mother. “Possible negative maternal experiences of breast feeding and those experiences of formula feeding mothers have largely been ignored in research to date,” says this paper.
Another remarkable part of this study is that it recognizes and discusses the methodological shortfalls of previous studies about breastfeeding moms and happiness. These studies had some serious issues in how they evaluated the psychological health of new mothers; they didn’t differentiate between current or past breast feeders, or women who had used formula from the birth of the child. Some had very small sample sizes, and others measured the women’s psychological health at varying times throughout the pregnancy.
Wait, there’s more: these studies also used psychological distress scales that are inappropriate for a woman who has just given birth; i.e., they count sleep disturbances and tiredness, normal parts of becoming a new mom, as probable signs of depression.
With these previous issues in mind, the researchers in this Australian study stated that the empirical evidence claiming that breastfeeding mothers were happier was mixed at best, even though that is the popularly held assumption. They set out in their study to challenge these commonly held notions and correct the methodological problems found in previous research.
To do the study, the researchers collected data on 60 new breast and formula feeding mothers using a 30 minute interview and a questionnaire. Standardized methods of quantifying psychological states such as life satisfaction, happiness, anxiety, depression, and maternal attachment were used to assess the well-being and attachment levels in the two groups.
And, drum roll please: no significant difference was found between the breast- and bottle-feeding mothers in psychological well-being, anxiety, or feelings of attachment to their infant.
“No evidence was found to support assumptions that breast feeding mothers have greater psychological health or have greater perceptions of attachment with their baby than mothers who are formula feeding their infant after weaning,” said the researchers.
I found the posture of these social scientists and the way they framed their research question to be quite encouraging—here are academics who were not simply looking at data on infant immunity and ending their papers with curt statements like “breast is best.” I’d probably attribute this to the fact that the researchers here are psychologists rather than, say medical doctors. There is an effort made to look at the potential social impact of the dominant opinion that breastfeeding leads to more happy, caring moms, and to thoroughly put to question that popular assumption.
Their final statement of the paper reflects this, and I have to agree with them: “Until more research is undertaken on maternal experience of feeding a baby, widely help assumptions may continue to place excessive and unnecessary pressure on new mothers.”