Moms already know that breast milk is ideal for a baby’s physical development. Now, research shows that being breastfed in infancy might even boost a child’s mental health, years later.
“Having identified that there are potential behavioral benefits, our study strengthens the case for public health strategies that promote breastfeeding, where possible,” study lead author Lydia Speyer, of the University of Edinburgh School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, said in a university news release.
The new study included thousands of British children born between 2000 and 2002. They were assessed at ages 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14 using questionnaires about their strengths and difficulties, which had been completed by parents and teachers.
The results showed that kids who were breastfed for three months or more developed fewer behavioral difficulties than those who weren’t breastfed. They were also less likely to have social and emotional problems, such as anxiety, struggles forming friendships, or difficulties with concentration.
The findings held true even after the researchers accounted for other influencing factors, such as a mother’s education and mental health, and family wealth, according to the authors of the study. The results were published online Nov. 9 in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
The investigators said their research is the first to track children’s behavior deep into adolescence and provides added proof of a link between breastfeeding and later behavioral development.
“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,” Speyer noted.
Dr. Jennifer Wu is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City. She said that while the researchers couldn’t prove cause and effect, “the longevity of this study, and the fact that the behavioral analyses show the trend over time, make the data more robust.”
According to Wu, “breastfeeding can have far-reaching effects for the child,” and the findings from this new study “should be used in discussions with pregnant patients who are considering whether to breastfeed.”
But of course, society needs to make room so that new moms can freely breastfeed, as well, she said. “On a larger scale, workplaces need policies to support breastfeeding for 6 months,” Wu believes.