The role of breastfeeding on social development

New research suggests that breastfeeding may have an impact on social development.

There is a lot of solid research that speaks to the positive relationship between breastfeeding and the overall health status for both children and their mothers. We know that breastfed babies have a decreased risk of dying of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), fewer ear infections, less likelihood of obesity or cardiovascular disease and fewer hospitalizations for pneumonia. Researchers have found that women who breastfeed benefit from decreased risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers. In fact, in 2012 the research on breastfeeding led the American Academy of Pediatrics to designate breastfeeding as a “public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice.”

Now there may be some evidence that breastfeeding may play a significant role in social development. According to an article published last week in the British Medical Journal, researchers from the University of London found that breastfeeding can impact cognitive development, which accounted for just over a third of the breastfeeding effect on improvements in social status. In the same study, breastfeeding seemed to lower the chances of an individual slipping on the social scale.

In the study referred to above, the researchers compared two groups of people, with more than 30,000 across both groups. Mothers in both groups were asked if they breastfed their children when their children were about 5-years-old. The fathers’ income and job were used to determine a child’s initial social status when they were 10-years-old; this ranking was used to determine the individual’s social status decades later, around age 34. The researchers also evaluated the children’s cognitive skills and stress responses when they were 10-years-old and later into adulthood using brain scans to track the same things.

Not surprisingly, breastfeeding increased the likelihood of upward mobility, defined in the study as having a professional/managerial job versus an unskilled/semi-skilled job by 24 percent, and lowered the likelihood of downward mobility by 20 percent. The effects were greatest for those who had been breastfed for longer than four weeks and for those who were breastfed exclusively. The outcomes were not influenced by factors such as employment rates and parental education, since these factors were controlled for in the study. The researchers drew the conclusion that the benefits in cognitive and intellectual development received from being breastfed as a baby may have contributed to the upward mobility, since brain testing that was conducted on the participants as adults found that those who were breastfed adapted more readily to new situations and life challenges. The brain scans also suggested that the breastfed children were less likely to experience emotional stress and were better able to cope with anxiety if they did.

This is just one study and certainly, more research is needed to determine if there is truly a connection between breastfeeding and social status. Still, it provides one more bit of information to consider when a mother is deciding whether or not she should breastfeed her child. Michigan State University Extension offers educational programs that support the social/emotional development of children, such as Nurturing Parenting program, as well as breastfeeding.

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