Are Breast-fed Kids More Upwardly Mobile?

British study says yes, 24% of kids who were consistently breast-fed attained higher social class than parents

Kathleen Doheny

Kathleen Doheny

Updated on June 25, 2013

MONDAY, June 24, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Breast-feeding, a practice already linked with many health benefits, could help a child become more upwardly mobile as an adult, British researchers report.

"Breast-feeding has lifelong benefits," said study author Amanda Sacker, a researcher at the University College London. "Breast-feeding not only gives children a good start in life, but also boosts chances of a healthy and successful adulthood. For most women, breast-feeding offers them a simple way to improve their child's life chances."

The study was published online June 24 in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Sacker and her team looked at data from the British Cohort Studies, comparing two groups of children: One included more than 17,000 babies born in 1958; the other included more than 16,000 infants born in 1970.

While 68 percent of the mothers breast-fed the children born in 1958, only 36 percent of the mothers who gave birth in 1970 did. The children were grouped into three categories: never breast-fed, breast-fed for less than four weeks; and breast-fed for at least four weeks.

All the children were tracked into adulthood and, at multiple time points, were interviewed, tested for brain development and given medical exams.

For this analysis, Sacker said, the researchers weighed many factors, including a parents' social class when the child was born. Social class was defined on a scale ranging from unskilled or semi-skilled manual to professional and managerial. They also took into account the fact that some groups of women may be less likely to breast-fed and some may have different levels of education.

Then, they looked at those children who became upwardly mobile adults. Upward mobility was defined as a social class higher than what the father's social class was when the child was 10 or 11. Downwardly mobile was the opposite.

According to their findings, breast-feeding increased the odds of upward mobility by 24 percent, Sacker said, and reduced the odds of downward mobility by about 20 percent for both those born in 1958 and in 1970.

It did seem, she added, that the longer children were breast-fed, the higher the odds of upward social mobility.

The study does not prove cause-and-effect, Sacker noted, and it is not clear which aspect of breast-feeding is most beneficial, physical contact or the nutrients in breast milk. The nutrients aid growth and brain development, she said, which in turn can lead to better thinking and reasoning skills and eventually more success in life as an adult. The contact promotes bonding, also healthy for the child.

The new study echoes results found in British research that was published in 2007. In that study, researchers followed 1,400 babies born in 1937 to 1939 for 60 years, and also found breast-fed babies were more likely to move up in social class.

The findings from the new study make sense, said Dr. Dennis Woo, former chair of pediatrics at the UCLA Medical Center, in Santa Monica, Calif.

Other studies have shown multiple health benefits for breast-fed children, he said, including intellectual benefits.

However, he cautioned that parents shouldn't think breast-feeding is a guarantee of upward social mobility for their baby. "It would be simplistic to think that one factor is responsible for success in life," he said.

More information

To learn more about the benefits of breast-feeding, visit U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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