Babies who are breastfed for three months or more have fewer behavioural problems as children, a new study reveals.
UK researchers examined the long-term effect of breastfeeding as a baby on their behaviour as a child, at the ages of three, five, seven, 11 and 14.
Those breastfed for three months or more were found to be less prone to issues forming friendships or problems with concentration, as well as less prone to social and emotional setbacks such as bouts of anxiety.
The study supports the recommendation of the World Health Organisation, which says babies should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of their lives.
Nearly two our of three infants are not exclusively breastfed for the recommended period of six months, as stipulated by the World Health Organisation. This new study suggests the benefits can be as far-reaching as contributing to behavioural well-being more than a decade later
THE WHO ON BREASTFEEDING
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says: ‘Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival.
‘Breastmilk is the ideal food for infants – it is safe, clean and contains antibodies which help protect against many common childhood illnesses.
‘Breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests, are less likely to be overweight or obese and less prone to diabetes later in life.’
However, nearly two out of three infants are not exclusively breastfed for its recommended period of six months.
‘The positive impact of breastfeeding on children’s physical development is well known but the effect on their social and emotional development is less understood,’ said study author Lydia Speyer at the University of Edinburgh.
‘Having identified that there are potential behavioural benefits, our study strengthens the case for public health strategies that promote breastfeeding, where possible.
‘Our study only looked at associations, so future research, like randomised control trials, is needed to establish whether the breastfeeding effect we see is causal.’
While the study did not examine explanations for why breastfed babies develop fewer behavioural problems, there are thought to be several potential explanations.
Dr Speyer said one could be that breastfeeding releases oxytocin, the so-called ‘love hormone’ in both mother and child, which has a positive effect on their mood and reduces stress.
Breast milk also contains some oxytocin as well as fatty acids that are important for brain development.
Evidence for the effect of early infant feeding on children’s behavioural development has so far been mixed, the experts claim.
Prior research had focused on the effect of breast feeding on early childhood rather than on long-term effects.
This new research claims to be the first to track behaviour into adolescence.
According to the research, kids that weren’t breastfed are more prone to social and emotional setbacks such as bouts of anxiety, struggles forming friendships or problems with concentration
For the study, researchers took data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which is tracking the lives of nearly 20,000 people born in the UK between 2000 and 2002.
11,148 people – children, parents and teachers – contributed to the study, which has been published in the journal
Researchers analysed Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) – a measure of a child’s mental well-being.
SDQ, which is completed by parents and teachers, complies a score based on children’s psychological attributes.
SDQ scores – which take into account emotional symptoms, hyperactivity and inattention and peer relationships – get higher where there are more behavioural issues.
The team found children who had been breast fed had significantly lower SDQ scores than children who hadn’t.
This was found to be the case even allowing for other influencing factors such as maternal education, maternal psychological distress and family socioeconomic status.
‘This study offers further evidence consistent with the idea that breastfeeding plays a crucial role in children’s socio-emotional behavioural development,’ the experts conclude.
‘Longer breastfeeding durations are associated with fewer behavioural problems in the short and long terms, though future research is required to illuminate the mechanisms.
‘Results support current healthcare policies that seek to encourage mothers to exclusively breast feed for the first six months of the infant’s life.’
Formula milk does not provide the same protection from illness and does not give you any health benefits, according to the NHS
Prior research has also found that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of breast cancer by helping remove cells with damaged DNA.
Benefits for the baby include offering them protection from infections and helping to build a ‘strong emotional bond’ between mother and baby, according to the NHS.
Formula milk does not provide the same protection from illness and does not give you any health benefits, it says.
RESEARCHERS LINK BREASTFEEDING WITH LOWER RISK OF CANCER
Breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of breast cancer, a report suggested in August 2017.
For every five months a woman breastfeeds, her risk of developing breast cancer is lowered by two percent, a study review found.
Researchers believe breastfeeding protects women against the condition as it makes them temporarily stop getting periods, which reduces their lifetime exposure to the hormone oestrogen.
High oestrogen levels have previously been linked to developing breast cancer.
Breastfeeding may also help to remove cells with damaged DNA that may otherwise lead to tumor onset.
The researchers, from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund, analysed 18 studies that examined breastfeeding.
Of these, 13 investigated the effects of the length of time spent lactating.
The report also found that carrying excess weight after menopause increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, yet it is protective while women are still able to conceive.
For both pre- and postmenopausal women, alcohol increases their risk of breast cancer and exercise reduces it, the report adds.
Babies who are breastfed are also less likely to gain weight in later life, the study found.
Study author Alice Bender said: ‘It isn’t always possible for moms to breastfeed but for those who can, know that breastfeeding can offer cancer protection for both the mother and the child.’