The poem below beautifully captures the mutually responsive and growth-orientated relationship between a mother and infant during breastfeeding.
“She feeds her baby and it is the first loving touch she has ever felt in her bruised and battered life. She strengthens and nourishes her little one and introduces him to love and trust and he does the same for her. He thrives, and so does she for the first time; for the first time, and forever” 
Breastfeeding provides unique opportunities for a mother to intimately bond with her baby  and breastfeeding mothers tend to be more responsive to their babies during feeding and engage in more infant-led feeding compared with bottle fed babies . Additionally, breastfeeding mothers tend to touch their babies more frequently  and feel more synchronised with their baby’s developmental and emotional pace than formula fed counterparts .
Oxytocin, the ‘bonding hormone’, causes milk to be expelled from the alveoli and alveolar ducts in the breasts in postpartum (and pregnant) women, which causes milk to flow towards the nipple in response to infant suckling . Oxytocin release during breastfeeding may be one of the contributing factors to increased feelings of attachment to one’s infant – with researchers finding that higher hormonal levels of oxytocin are related to more frequent infant ‘checking’ behaviour and increased feelings of wellbeing . Further in support of maternal wellbeing, breastfeeding is associated with fewer incidences of: guilt, stigma, defensiveness [8, 9]; and reduced risk of experiencing postpartum depression  and anxiety .
When we consider the numerous benefits of breastfeeding to mother and baby (e.g. reduced risk of: infant mortality ; gastrointestinal and lower respiratory tract infections ; certain cancers ; and maternal overweight and obesity ) it’s no surprise that breastfeeding mothers have been described as having, “…superpowers, for real.” (p1, ). Women who are able to and decide to breastfeed are able to pass on amazing immunological protective antibodies to their babies .
Mother-infant bonding may also be significantly enhanced by the skin-to-skin contact which occurs during breastfeeding. Skin-to-skin contact has a number of benefits for baby, by: stabilising respiration; preventing low blood sugar levels; reducing stress; decreasing crying; and increasing quiet, active state . This contact improves maternal bonding and reduces separation anxiety in baby . Further, the contact between mother and infant increases mean duration of exclusive breastfeeding and overall breastfeeding in new mothers compared with a group with lack of skin-to-skin contact, by 1.43 months . Especially beneficial to breastfeeding duration and exclusivity was skin-to-skin contact for 30 minutes or longer.
Having little or no prior exposure to breastfeeding has been shown to be a significant contributing factor to low breastfeeding uptake in areas whereby breastfeeding is not a common practice . Exposure to breastfeeding role models was reported as being important in normalising the achievability of breastfeeding, “I think when you see that your friends can do it…then I can do it!” (pg. 272, ). To encourage a breastfeeding friendly culture in the School of Psychology at the University of Liverpool, I asked a number of women to share their breastfeeding journeys. Here are some extracts from our video conversations:
Can you please tell me about your experience with breastfeeding?
“Yeah, it’s really been a wonderful experience. One of the best things I’ve done. So I think at first you’re trying to keep them alive [laughter] and but now, ‘cause I still breastfeed my son, he’s 15 months old now, erm… we’ve gotten to the point where it’s just comfort and closeness and that sense of relaxing together is really nice so erm…I feed him in the evening before he goes to sleep and in the morning when he wakes up and that’s my favourite part of the day.” [Mother 1]
“So my daughter was in hospital for the first few weeks of her life, in ICU [Intensive Care Unit]. So actually we expressed for the first…3 weeks, roughly. Erm…and then the hospital…the women’s [hospital] were really helpful with trying to support me to learning to breastfeed. Erm…so I was readmitted for a couple of things and that’s where we established it. Erm…and it was really tough at first…so we had a really tough ride. So [baby] had been on a lot of antibiotics in hospital so she had thrush and that was just passing between the two of us for a while…” [Mother 5]
What support have you had in place?
“You know and the breastfeeding support from…you know…from the health visitors and you know I could always call them err…when I had some problems at the beginning. They would come to your place and just really help you and look at you and you know give you tips practically how to improve the position and if everything is fine and if you should worry about anything so you have always a phone line you can call you…you have always people who can come around to you so you know and yeah. Knowing that you can count on that different levels of support you know. You have breastfeeding groups you can join. Erm…so all together I think it’s pretty well organised for that.” [Mother 2]
“My husband works in public health and was very supportive from the beginning, although he had his moments of doubt. Other than that there was not really much support and I often felt isolated, especially as he got bigger and the number of people I knew breastfeeding dwindled. The local group seemed to have only very young babies and once [baby] hit the toddler phase I felt quite self-conscious about feeding him in public – in hindsight I wish I hadn’t cared about what other people thought!” [Mother 6]
Has anything helped you to overcome any breastfeeding challenges?
“…you know…I don’t feel worried about like going out in public and breastfeeding cause it’s sort of…I don’t know. It’s pretty natural. But I have had problems…well…a bit of stress going in to work and wondering ‘Oh shall I feed her’, ‘I don’t know if I can go to this meeting or work with these people if I’m feeding her’. Erm…even things like expressing milk to…to use later…I’ve got to prioritise feeding [baby] over going to the meeting but it means I’m missing out on work a little bit as well. So that’s been a problem. But not particularly with the feeding itself.” [Mother 3]
“Always online research and believing in my own intuition, although this was not always easy. When [baby] turned three years old I was really struggling with the pressure to stop and feeling very worried I was doing the wrong thing. I contacted someone from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers who was amazing, we had a chat on the phone and she made me feel so much better. She gave me some great sources of information and advised me to find a ‘tribe’ so I joined a fantastic group on Facebook for those breastfeeding older babies and children. This was a brilliant source of support for me and filled my news feed with positive images/messages and encouragement from a group of over 20,000 women” [Mother 6]
Do you have any tips or advice for new mums?
“You need someone around you giving you some care, making you sandwiches and telling you that you are doing a great job. If you don’t have that then you need to reach out for moral support and arm yourself with information that will motivate you to keep going. Find yourself a tribe! Go to breastfeeding groups, join online groups, read blogs (I loved this one https://themilkmeg.com/) find people who are positive and supportive and ignore the negative messages. There is also the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers who have a helpline: https://abm.me.uk/get-breastfeeding-support/” [Mother 6]
“I recommend you know if anyone can breastfeed. I know it’s quite hard, some women can’t. It’s not always convenient. For me it’s been a really lovely experience because it gives you that extra closeness to the baby…erm…I find it more convenient. You don’t have the faffing about of sterilising bottles and making up formula. If it’s the middle of the night I can just you know…lean over to her and feed her rather than get out of bed and go down to the kitchen erm…if you go…if you’re flying you can just breastfeed because that helps with their ears popping. So there’s all these little things that I’d never really thought about but…and it’s…the milk of course is the best thing for your baby. So if you’re able, do it as much as you can!” [Mother 3]
Women who decide to and are able to breastfeed have an amazing opportunity to bond with their babies and to provide them with the best possible nutritional start in life. By normalising and celebrating women’s breastfeeding journeys, it may be possible to encourage a nurturing and mutually supportive breastfeeding environment. Finally, a huge thank you to the incredible mums who volunteered to participate in the breastfeeding video and blog and congratulations to all new mothers striving to achieve their infant feeding goals. Have a happy breastfeeding celebration week! If you are interested in watching our breastfeeding celebration video, click here.
Blog by Leanne Jackson, PhD student at the University of Liverpool.
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