Background: Research points to the importance of breastfeeding for promoting close mother–infant contact and social-emotional development. Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have identified brain regions related to maternal behaviors. However, little research has addressed the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the relationship between breastfeeding and maternal behavior in human mothers. We investigated the associations between breastfeeding, maternal brain response to own infant stimuli, and maternal sensitivity in the early postpartum.
Methods: Seventeen biological mothers of healthy infants participated in two matched groups according to feeding method – exclusive breastfeeding and exclusive formula-feeding at 2–4 weeks postpartum. fMRI scanning was conducted in the first postpartum month to examine maternal brain activation in response to her own baby’s cry versus control baby-cry. Dyadic interactions between mothers and infants at 3–4 months postpartum were videotaped in the home and blindly coded for maternal sensitivity.
Results: In the first postpartum month, breastfeeding mothers showed greater activations in the superior frontal gyrus, insula, precuneus, striatum, and amygdala while listening to their own baby-cry as compared to formula-feeding mothers. For both breastfeeding and formula-feeding mothers, greater activations in the right superior frontal gyrus and amygdala were associated with higher maternal sensitivity at 3–4 months postpartum.
Conclusions: Results suggest links between breastfeeding and greater response to infant cues in brain regions implicated in maternal–infant bonding and empathy during the early postpartum. Such brain activations may facilitate greater maternal sensitivity as infants enter their social world.