Extended Breastfeeding Tied to Enhanced Academic Performance in Adolescence, Study Finds

by Henrik Andersen
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breastfeeding and academic performance

A recent study has revealed a potential connection between longer durations of breastfeeding and modest improvements in academic performance during adolescence.

According to research published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, children who were breastfed for extended periods appeared to outperform their non-breastfed peers in their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams at the age of 16.

Even after accounting for variables such as socioeconomic status and parental intelligence, this trend towards enhanced academic achievement remained significant.

While earlier studies have suggested a correlation between extended breastfeeding and improved educational outcomes later in life, such research has been relatively scarce and often failed to consider potential influencing factors. For instance, the previous studies did not adequately address the fact that mothers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds or with higher intelligence scores are more likely to breastfeed their children for longer, which could also contribute to higher exam results.

To address these gaps, a team of researchers from the University of Oxford analyzed data from a large group of British children enrolled in the Millennium Cohort Study. The study followed 18,818 children born between 2000 and 2002 in the UK and tracked their progress at various ages, including 3, 5, 7, 11, 14, 17, and 22.

The researchers connected this data with the National Pupil Dataset, which contains longitudinal academic information on students attending English state schools.

For the present study, the researchers focused on a nationally representative group of 4,940 participants from England, analyzing their academic results up to the age of 16. Specifically, they examined the outcomes of their GCSE exams in English and Mathematics, as well as their Attainment 8 scores, which reflect the cumulative results of all their GCSE subjects.

Among the participants, approximately one-third (32.8%) were never breastfed, while the remainder were breastfed for varying durations. Only 9.5% of the children were breastfed for at least 12 months.

Upon analyzing the results, the researchers discovered that longer breastfeeding duration was associated with improved educational outcomes.

In the English GCSE exam, only 19.2% of children breastfed for at least 12 months failed, compared to 41.7% of those who were never breastfed. Furthermore, 28.5% of children breastfed for at least 12 months achieved a high pass (A and A* grades), while only 9.6% of non-breastfed children accomplished the same.

Regarding the Mathematics GCSE, only 23.7% of children breastfed for at least 12 months failed the exam, compared to 41.9% of those who were never breastfed. Additionally, 31.4% of children breastfed for at least 12 months achieved a high pass, while only 11% of non-breastfed children did so.

Even after adjusting for confounding factors, the overall findings indicated that children breastfed for at least 12 months were 39% more likely to achieve high passes in both exams and 25% less likely to fail the English exam, in comparison to those who were never breastfed.

Furthermore, those who breastfed for longer exhibited better overall performance in their GCSE exams, as reflected in their higher Attainment 8 scores, when compared to those who were not breastfed.

The study did have some limitations. It was not possible to connect the National Pupil Dataset for approximately 4,000 children due to loss of follow-up or lack of consent. Additionally, around 1,292 children were not followed up until the age of 14 when maternal cognitive ability was measured. The study also did not account for other potential factors that might influence the observed association.

Nevertheless, the authors of the study emphasized that their findings were nationally representative for children attending state schools in England. The substantial sample size allowed for the detection of outcome differences among various breastfeeding duration groups. Moreover, the researchers had accounted for confounding effects related to family-level and area-level socioeconomic status, as well as maternal intelligence.

In conclusion, the study highlighted that breastfeeding duration was linked to improved educational outcomes at the age of 16 among children in England, even after controlling for important confounding factors. However, the effect sizes were relatively modest and might be influenced by residual confounding. While the study emphasized the potential benefits of breastfeeding, including enhanced academic achievement, the authors suggested that future research should comprehensively adjust for both socioeconomic circumstances and maternal general intelligence.

Reference: Pereyra-Elías, R., Carson, C., & Quigley, M. A. (2023). Association between breastfeeding duration and educational achievement in England: results from the Millennium Cohort Study. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 1-8. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2022-325148.

The Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford provided funding for the study.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about breastfeeding and academic performance

What did the study find regarding breastfeeding duration and academic performance?

The study found that longer breastfeeding duration was associated with improved academic performance in adolescence. Children who were breastfed for extended periods performed slightly better in their GCSE exams at the age of 16 compared to those who were not breastfed or breastfed for shorter durations.

Did the study consider factors such as socioeconomic status and parental intelligence?

Yes, the study took into account factors such as socioeconomic status and parental intelligence. Even after controlling for these variables, the association between longer breastfeeding duration and improved academic outcomes remained significant.

How was the study conducted?

The study analyzed data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which followed a large group of British children born between 2000 and 2002. The researchers linked this data to the National Pupil Dataset, which provided academic information on students in English state schools. The academic results of 4,940 participants from England were examined, specifically their GCSE exams in English and Mathematics.

What were the findings regarding breastfeeding duration and GCSE exam results?

The findings showed that children breastfed for longer durations had better GCSE exam results. They had lower failure rates and higher rates of achieving high passes (A and A* grades) compared to those who were not breastfed or breastfed for shorter durations.

Were there any limitations to the study?

Yes, there were a few limitations. Some children could not be included in the analysis due to loss of follow-up or lack of consent. Additionally, the study did not consider certain potential factors that could influence the association. However, the authors noted that the study’s findings were still nationally representative and the large sample size allowed for detecting outcome differences among different breastfeeding duration groups.

What are the implications of the study’s findings?

The study highlights a potential link between extended breastfeeding and improved academic performance. However, the effect sizes were modest, and the authors caution that other factors may also contribute to academic outcomes. They emphasize that breastfeeding should continue to be encouraged for its potential benefits beyond academic achievement. Future research should consider comprehensive adjustments for socioeconomic circumstances and maternal general intelligence.

More about breastfeeding and academic performance

  • Archives of Disease in Childhood: Link
  • Millennium Cohort Study: Link
  • Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford: Link
  • General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE): Link

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