That’s why I was so excited to learn about the research of psychologist Dr. Darcia Narvaez at the University of Notre Dame. She is Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education. She is co-author, most recently, of Evolution, Early Experience, and Human Development and has written on breastfeeding for Psychology Today.
To learn more about Dr. Narvaez’s research on the relationship between breastfeeding and moral development, I asked her these questions:
You say that breastfeeding related to moral development in children. Can you describe what the research says about the attributes which are associated with breastfeeding? Is there a connection between length of breastfeeding and moral development?
Yes, there is a connection. In our studies, breastfeeding initiation is correlated with social cooperation at 18 months, fewer behavior problems at 24 months, and empathy at age three. Breastfeeding length is correlated in 3 year olds with inhibitory control (being able to stop one’s behavior), sense of guilt, and concern after doing something wrong.
What can the newer research in neuroscience and gene expression tell us about the relationship between breastfeeding and moral development?
Breastfeeding is known to have specific effects. Breastfeeding at night provides tryptophan which is a precursor for serotonin. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter related both to general neuronal communication and to not getting depressed. Breastfeeding provides multiple factors that lead to good immune system development which resides primarily in the gut where 90% of the serotonin receptors are.
Breastmilk provides all the immunoglobulin factors for the immune system, which does reach adult levels till age 6. It also contains oligosaccharides, which humans cannot digest, but which feed the good gut bacteria, keeping immunity strong.
Our development is greatly shaped by caregivers and early experience, a part of which is breastfeeding our children and being breastfed. We have not evolved away from being mammals and what mammals need. Our ancestral parenting practices match up with the needs of social mammals and emerged more than 30 million years ago.
What are those ancestral caregiving practices? They include meeting the needs of the young child promptly so the child’s brain does not get stressed. They include nearly constant touch in the first years of life to keep DNA synthesis and growth hormone active. They include multiple supportive caregivers of both mom and baby. Extensive breastfeeding is another need that is required for a well-functioning body and brain.
Although research has barely begun to scratch the surface of the contents and benefits of breastmilk, it shows how overwhelmingly important breastmilk is for brain and body development.
To learn about Dr. Narvaez’ findings on empathy and breastfeeding, watch this video!