Lack of eye contact has become an early telltale sign of autism, and new research suggests that breastfeeding may be helpful in helping babies with a certain genetic mutation that has been associated with autism better perceive and react to social cues from the eyes. As part of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers showed pictures of happy eyes and angry eyes to nearly 100 babies to gauge their response. The study found that the longer the babies (then seven months-old) were exclusively breastfed, the more likely they were to avoid the angry eyes and focus on the happy eyes, indicating an ability to distinguish between social and emotional cues. Here’s where their findings get even more interesting with regard to autism…
After looking at the babies’ genetic information, they realized that “exclusive breastfeeding impacted emotional eye preferences, but only in infants at risk for autism,” specifically those with genetic variation CD38. Babies with that particular genetic variation are associated with a higher risk for autism as well as a reduced release of the mood-boosting hormone oxytocin.
Oxytocin, which helps with lactation and maternal bonding, has also been studied as a potential treatment for children and adults with autism and has been associated with increased social functioning. The researchers speculate that breastfeeding and the oxytocin boost it provides may be helpful in increasing the prosocial behaviors in babies who naturally have lower oxytocin levels. In lieu of breastfeeding, close skin-to-skin physical contact can also help in the release of oxytocin. Although further research is needed to examine how and if breastfeeding influences the social and emotional behavior of children as they continue to grow and if breastfeeding can actually reduce the rate of autism, the study provides a promising look at how mothers can promote development of social and emotional cues through breastfeeding.
via Fit Pregnancy