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Breastfeeding Linked To Fewer Behavior Problems

May 10, 2011

Breastfeeding babies for four months or more can contribute to fewer behavior problems developed in early childhood than those who are formula-fed, according to findings published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Well-known health benefits such as lower rates of infections in babies and reduced risk of breast cancer in mothers have also been associated with breastfeeding.

In addition, recent studies have suggested that breastfed babies tend to have higher IQ scores, fewer behavior problems and lower levels of obesity, the study says.

“Our results provide even more evidence for the benefits of breastfeeding,” says Maria Quigley of the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University and one of the lead researchers in the study.

The study suggests that it is possible that breast milk contains something that leads to improved neurological development and behavioral learning in children, or it could be the close physical contact during breastfeeding that may lead to more of a mother-baby interaction and better communication.

In addition, researchers suggest that reduced illness experienced by babies who are breastfed might have something to do with the relationship between breastfeeding and fewer behavior problems in young children.

“We just don’t know whether it is because of the constituents in breast milk which are lacking in formula, or the close interaction with the mum during breastfeeding, or whether it is a knock-on effect of the reduced illness in breastfed babies. But it does begin to look like we can add fewer behavioral problems as another potential benefit of breastfeeding,” says Quigley.

The study involved researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Essex, York and University College London who analyzed data from a survey of 10,037 infants born in the United Kingdom between 2000 and 2001 to families of white ethnic backgrounds.

The survey asked mothers to assess the behavior of their children by the age of five. Scores were given to different behaviors such as clinginess, lying and restlessness problems.

“We’re not necessarily talking about tear-away, unmanageable 5-year-old kids,” says Quigley. “It might be unusual anxiousness, restlessness, inability to socialize with other children or play fully in groups.”

The raw figures showed that out of over 3,200 formula-fed babies, 530 (16.1%) had abnormal scores at age five. Out of the 2,741 babies who were breastfed for at least four months, 179 (6.5%) had abnormal scores.

“We found that children who were breastfed for at least four months were less likely to have behavioral problems at age 5,” Quigley says.

Participants in the study differed across a number of measures, which the researchers had to adjust their analysis to include.

“However, that observation might not have been the direct result of breastfeeding ““ it could have been down to a number of factors,” she explains. “As a group, mothers who breastfed for four months were very different socially to those who formula fed. They were more likely to be older, better educated and in a higher socio-economic position, on average.”

Regardless of the adjustment, the study still found that babies who were breastfed for four months or more were about 30% less likely to have behavioral problems at age five.

“Having controlled for these and other differences between the groups, we found there was still a 30% lower risk of behavior problems associated with prolonged breastfeeding.”

She believes that “mothers who want to breastfeed should be given all the support they need.

“Many women struggle to breastfeed for as long as they might otherwise like, and many don’t receive the support that might make a difference,” Quigley adds.

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