It’s exam month, and from tutors to study timetables, parents are throwing everything at their children to ensure better grades. But a new study has found that the foundations may have been laid many years beforehand.

According to scientists at the University of Oxford, the question of whether children were breastfed as babies – and for how long – may have an impact on their adolescent test scores. The study followed almost 5,000 British schoolchildren from birth to their last year of secondary school, and found that children who were breastfed for at least four months had an increased chance of passing at least five GCSEs.

Meanwhile, children who were breastfed for at least 12 months were 39 per cent more likely to achieve an A or A* in maths and English, while only 10 per cent of non-breastfed children scored the same in English.

As any new mother who’s been through this will attest, not every woman, nor her baby, is “able” to breastfeed. The author of the study was also clear that the results were not about inducing “guilt”. But it has been known for a while that breast milk can boost your child’s brain power. “Breast milk contains polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients that enhance neurodevelopment”, wrote the authors of this study.

This follows a 2015 study in The Lancet Global Health, which found breastfeeding led to increased intelligence, and even earning potential. “Our study provides the first evidence that prolonged breastfeeding not only increases intelligence until at least the age of 30 years but also has an impact both at an individual and societal level by improving educational attainment and earning ability,” said lead author Dr Bernardo Lessa Horta from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil.

However, experts are also keen to point out that findings like this may also be due to factors, other than the breast milk itself. In 2015 researchers at Ohio State University found that while breastfeeding was linked to better test scores, the overall health and socioeconomic status of women who choose to breastfeed can also play a part in their child’s performance at school later on.  

Prof Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of Applied Statistics at the Open University, called this latest study “a careful piece of research”, but also pointed out that the research is “observational”. “It’s not possible to be certain about what’s causing what,” he says. “For instance, as the researchers point out, it’s well-known that in countries like the UK, mothers who have a higher socioeconomic position, ie, are better off, are more likely to breastfeed their children, and their children are also more likely to do well at school.”

Either way, here’s what the science tells us about the bonuses of breastfeeding.

It can reduce the likelihood of allergies

According to Allergy UK, 40 per cent of children in the UK have been diagnosed with an allergy, with the four most common being a food allergy, eczema, asthma and hay fever.

In 2021, researchers from the Australian Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that mothers who breastfeed can help lower the risk of their babies developing allergies by producing signals that influence their immune systems. “We know breast milk has an incredible ability to protect offspring from infectious disease and many of the compounds found in human milk have the required characteristics to instruct immune development and prevent allergy,” said study author Professor Valerie Verhasselt.

It reduces the risk of obesity

The NHS estimates that one in four adults and one in five children in the UK aged 10 to 11 are obese, and that breastfeeding can reduce your child’s likelihood of becoming severely overweight.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) study from 2017 looked at 16 countries across Europe and found that breastfeeding reduces a child’s risk of becoming obese by 25 per cent. The researchers found 16.8 per cent of children who were never breastfed were obese, compared to 13.2 per cent who had been breastfed at some point, and 9.3 per cent who were breastfed for six months or more. After adjusting for demographics, it was found that children who were never breastfed were 22 per cent more likely to become obese.

One reason, believed the researchers, was that exclusive breastfeeding delays the introduction of solid food. Sue Ashmore, director of Unicef UK’s Baby Friendly Initiative, said that breast milk “acts as the baby’s first vaccine, protecting against infections, but it also affects long-term health, including acting as the first defence against the epidemic of obesity”.

It can help keep mothers healthy too

Most mothers know that breastfeeding is good for their babies’ health, but studies show it can also protect their own.

According to Cancer Research UK, breastfeeding lowers your risk of developing breast cancer, and the longer you breastfeed the more your risk is reduced. It’s not fully understood why, although it’s thought changes to the cells in the breast during breastfeeding might make them more resistant to the changes that lead to cancer. A 2002 study that looked at almost 50,000 breast cancer cases across 30 countries found the risk for breast cancer was reduced by 4.3 per cent for every 12 months a woman breastfeeds, and subsequent studies have found it can also lower the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer.

Meanwhile, the NHS says that breastfeeding lowers your risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. And a 2020 study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine found that breastfeeding may trigger lasting metabolic changes that can help protect mothers from type 2 diabetes, even long after they’ve stopped breastfeeding.

But we know it’s not for everyone – and new mothers need support

“In the UK we have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. In addition, infant feeding is a highly emotive subject because so many families have not breastfed or have experienced the trauma of trying very hard to breastfeed and not been able to,” says Ashmore. “We need more support to help new mothers learn breastfeeding skills, and policies in place that will help them to continue breastfeeding through the first year of life.”

What do you think of the results of these studies? Do you believe breastfeeding can make children smarter? Please join the conversation in the comments below

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2023-06-07T16:42:34Z dg43tfdfdgfd