File photo: Breastfeeding is believed to release "cuddle hormone" oxytocin. Picture: CINDY WAXA/ANA Pictures

London - We've long been advised that breastfeeding helps give a newborn the best possible start in life.

Yet for many new mothers, the urge to switch to bottle shortly after giving birth can be overwhelming.

Persevering just a little longer with breast, however, could reap emotional dividends for years to come. It seems the bond formed when a mother snuggles up to breastfeed her baby endures for long after they have started on solids.

And those who stick with it are more sensitive to their children’s emotional needs right up until the age off 11, a study found.

Breastfeeding is believed to release "cuddle hormone" oxytocin, with researchers saying it could have a "cascade of positive benefits" when it comes to parenting skills.

If breastfeeding does help women bond with their babies, this could also explain why breastfed children have better mental health and are less likely to take drugs, the researchers suggest.

The study looked at 1 272 families, interviewing them and videotaping interactions in their homes over the course of 11 years.

Mothers in the study, who breastfed for an average of 17 weeks, were observed for their sensitivity to younger children’s emotional signals, affection and intrusiveness. Mothers of older children were rated on supportiveness, respect for their independence and any hostility. They found the longer women had breastfed, the more sensitive they were on average over the following years.

Earlier research has shown breastfeeding mothers touch their babies more often and interact with them more.

However there have been few studies on how breastfeeding affects mothers’ relationships with their children years later.

Lead author Dr Jennifer Weaver, from Boise State University in the US, said the results were "surprising", adding: "We had prior research suggesting a link between breastfeeding and early maternal sensitivity, but nothing to indicate we would continue to see effects significantly beyond the period when breastfeeding had ended." The study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, was adjusted for women’s education and parenting attitudes to avoid skewing the results .

It adds: "Breastfeeding has been linked to both activation of brain regions associated with care-giving and the release of oxytocin, a critical hormone linked to social competence and adequate caregiving."