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Why Breastfeeding For Longer Can Make Babies Less Fearful As They Develop

New research out of Germany has found that babies are reassured by the presence of their mother’s scent, as experts analysed how their their brains respond to fear.

It's something that has long been suspected, but has previously not been backed by evidence in human studies. Maternal odor, or a mother's smell, has a significant impact in making a child feel safe.

To test the theory, Jessen and her team shiowed photos of happy and fearful facial expressions to infants.

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"We recorded the electroencephalographic (EEG) signal of seven-month-old infants watching happy and fearful facial expressions," the authors wrote.

"Infants respond differently to fear signals in the presence of their mother and the mother’s odor is a sufficiently strong signal to elicit this effect."

Even if mum wasn't present, but something which carried her scent was with the baby, they reacted less fearfully.

“Some midwives tell new mums to put a worn T-shirt or scarf in the crib with their baby,” author Sarah Jessen at the University of Lübeck in Germany said.

Their findings are in line with prior studies reporting an increased bias towards expressions of happiness when a mum breastfeeds for longer.

But conversely, in a 2014 study mothers can pass on specific fears of their own to their bubs within a few days of birth.

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A small study from the University of Michigan Medical School and New York University shed light on  how a mother's old traumas, including post-traumatic stress disorder and specific phobias, affect her children.

It found that babies can learn what to fear in the first days of life just by smelling the odor of their distressed mothers. If a mother experienced something before pregnancy that made her fear something specific, her baby will quickly learn to fear it too.

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The findings shed light on why some children of traumatised or depressed mothers are affected differently than their siblings.

"Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers' experiences. Most importantly, these maternally-transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish," researchers said at the time.