Breastfeeding for Longer May Improve Child's Education Later in Life

Longer breastfeeding duration may slightly improve educational achievements during teenage years, according to a study conducted in England.

Only one in four infants in the United States is exclusively breastfed for about the first six months of life, as recommended by international health organizations, despite breastfeeding benefits for both babies and their mothers.

Research suggests breastfed babies are less likely to develop asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes, and other conditions. In mothers, breastfeeding may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, ovarian and breast cancers, and high blood pressure.

A team of researchers from the University of Oxford investigated whether being breastfed may result in better academic performance. They analyzed data from 4,940 children up to 16 years old from the Millennium Cohort Study, which enrolled nearly 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2002 living in the United Kingdom.

The researchers examined the results of secondary education standardized examinations, specifically their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in English and Mathematics. The Attainment 8 score, which is the sum of all the GCSEs taken by the children, was also analyzed.

Around a third (32.8%) of the participants were never breastfed, and the remainder were breastfed for different periods. Of those, only 9.5% were breastfed for at least 12 months.

Analysis of the results showed that only 19.2% of children who were breastfed for at least 12 months failed their English GCSE, compared to 41.7% of those who were never breastfed. Nearly a third (28.5%) of those breastfed for at least 12 months achieved a high pass (A and A+) compared with 9.6% among non-breastfed children.

Only 23.7% of children who were breastfed for at least 12 months failed the Mathematics GCSE, compared to 41.9% of those who were never breastfed. Additionally, 31.4% of those breastfed for a longer time achieved a high pass (A and A*) compared with 11% in the non-breastfed group.

After taking into account confounding factors, the researchers found that children who breastfed for at least 12 months were 39% more likely to have a high pass for both exams and were 25% less likely to fail the English exam. Those who breastfed for longer also had a higher Attainment 8 score than those who never breastfed.

The study authors say that the association between breastfeeding and better academic performance may be explained by polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients, which are found in breast milk and enhance neurodevelopment. Moreover, breastfeeding may enable mother–child bonding, which could have a positive effect on cognitive and academic performance. Previous and current studies hypothesized that breastfeeding might improve self-regulation, which can predict academic achievement.

The study published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood has some limitations. First, it was not possible to link the National Pupil Dataset for approximately 4,000 children because they were lost to follow-up or did not consent. Another 1,292 children were not followed up to age 14 when maternal cognitive ability was measured.

Although the study associates longer breastfeeding duration with improved academic results, the gains are modest. Nevertheless, breastfeeding should be encouraged for possible benefits on academic achievement and health.

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