Breastfeeding improves a child’s chance of climbing the social ladder and becoming a successful adult, according to a long-term study.
The analysis of more than 34,000 people born in the 1950s and 1970s found that those who had been breastfed as a baby were 24 per cent more likely to be upwardly mobile – and 20 per cent less likely to drop down the social ladder.
The health benefits of breastfeeding are well known, but the study is among the first to identify tangible benefits later in life.
Two groups of people – born in 1958 and in 1970 – were categorised by the job their father did when they were 10 or 11, and the job they themselves had when they were 33 or 34.
Social class was divided into four categories based on job type – from unskilled and semi-skilled manual work to professional or managerial work.
The authors of the study, published in the medical journal Archives of Disease in Childhood today, said that it provided evidence of long-term health, developmental and behavioural advantages to children, which crucially persist into adulthood. Breastfeeding enhances brain development, which boosts intellect, which in turn increases upward social mobility, they argued.
“There are few studies that look at the long-term outcomes of breastfeeding, but this study shows its long-lasting positive effect,” said Professor Amanda Sacker, one of the report’s authors and the director of the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at University College London.
The NHS recommends breastfeeding to new mothers for the first six months of a baby’s life. Breast milk protects children from infections, and breastfed babies are also less likely to become obese or develop eczema. The report’s authors said that breastfeeding also helped to generate a strong emotional bond between mother and baby.
“Perhaps the combination of physical contact and the most appropriate nutrients required for growth and brain development is implicated in the better neurocognitive and adult outcomes of breastfed infants,” they said.
Professor Sacker said that mothers who could not breastfeed could still aid their baby’s emotional and cognitive development with cuddling and close skin-to-skin contact with their baby while feeding. The study comes in the wake of figures that revealed the number of women breastfeeding their babies in England has dropped for the first time in a decade.
Numbers have been increasing in recent years, following a long-term decline associated with more women working and the increasing use of baby formula.
The report’s authors found that while more than two-thirds of the 1958 children had been breastfed, that figure dropped to just one in three in 1970. Today, more than four out of five women start breastfeeding but less than half are still doing so at six weeks, according to Unicef UK.
Professor Sacker said that in the current economic climate more women were going back to work sooner, and therefore choosing not to breastfeed. She said that employers should offer new mothers more support at work, such as crèches at the office, where babies could be breastfed.
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