What’s going on in the brain during breastfeeding?
What is happening when a baby suckles at a mother’s breast? What are the mechanisms that trigger milk production and feeling of well-being in both baby and mommy. This study is probably one of the very first to give us an insight into the neurobiology of breastfeeding using a very unlikely technique – a computer model.
Researchers from the University of Warwick, in collaboration with colleagues from other part of the UK, France, China and Italy observed that when a baby suckles at its mother’s breast, it triggers the production of oxytocin in the mother’s brain. Oxytocin is also known as the “trust” hormone, and is linked in the enhancement of love and trust, not only in humans, but in animals as well. In the act of breastfeeding, oxytocin serves 2 purpose: to release milk from the mammary glands and to stimulate bonding between mother and child. However, for the system to work, large amounts of oxytocin are necessary.
In their computer model, the researchers were able to observe how the neurons (nerve cells) are able to produce large, regular pulses of oxytocin in a very coordinated way. They found that these cells used not only their nerve endings but also their dendrites to release oxytocin – in other words, they modify their behavior and work double time. Dendrites are branch-like projections in a neuron that transmit electrical impulses or messages from one nerve cell to the other. In involving the dendrites in oxytocin release, the message spreads fast, creating an army of oxytocin factories, to produce strong intense bursts of oxytocin release about every 5 minutes. The result – the baby gets enough milk and is happy and the mommy gets enough oxytocin and is happy.
It’s interesting to know what’s going on in our brains when we breastfeed. But we don’t need scientists or computer models to tell us that breastfeeding is good for mommy as well as for baby. We feel love, trust, and a sense of well-being. We call it – nature.