Research: mental health, attachment and breastfeeding

Mental health, attachment and breastfeeding: implications for adopted children and their mothers

Breastfeeding an adopted child has previously been discussed as something that is nice to do but without potential for significant benefit. However, physiological and behavioural research provides evidence that breastfeeding can play a significant role in developing the attachment relationship between child and mother.
In cases of adoption, particularly where the child has experienced abuse or neglect, the impact of breastfeeding can be considerable. Breastfeeding may assist attachment development via the provision of regular intimate interaction between mother and child; the calming, relaxing and analgesic impact of breastfeeding on children; and the stress relieving and maternal sensitivity promoting influence of breastfeeding on mothers. The impact of breastfeeding as observed in cases of adoption has applicability to all breastfeeding situations, but may be especially relevant to other at risk dyads, such as those families with a history of intergenerational relationship trauma; this deserves further investigation.


The value of breastfeeding in supporting the normal growth and development of infants and young children is recognized worldwide [1]. There is also a growing awareness that it is possible for women to breastfeed their adopted children, and that health care professionals should support them if they express a desire to do so [2]. However, both professional and lay literature are often unclear as to why adoptive breastfeeding may be of benefit. The ability of adoptive mothers to successfully relactate/induce lactation is regularly questioned in literature [3,4,5], in spite of evidence that most adoptive mothers are physiologically capable of producing sufficient milk for their child [6]. In addition,
discussion of the benefits of adoptive breastfeeding uniformly lacks detail on how breastfeeding may assist the child or mother [3,4,5,7]. Thus, health care professionals and prospective adoptive parents may be left with the impression that adoptive breastfeeding is something that is nice to do but is without potential for substantive benefit.
In an attempt to ameliorate this situation, this paper will provide evidence to support the proposition that breastfeeding can play a significant role in facilitating the development of the child-mother relationship in cases of adoption. This evidence will include discussion of the impact of the physical act of breastfeeding on children and mothers; the way in which the pre-adoption experience of children influences their ability to form relationships; how breastfeeding may be initiated in cases of adoption and the potential impact of breastfeeding on adopted children. Four case histories of adoptive breastfeeding will also be presented.

Information about publication

  • This provisional pdf corresponds to the article as it appeared upon acceptance. The fully-formatted pdf version will become available shortly after the date of publication.
  • Published 9 March 2006 In the International Breastfeeding Journal 2006, 1:5- doi:10.1186/1746-4358-1-5
  • Research: Karleen D Gribble

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