Babies breastfed during their first 6 weeks of life are a fifth less likely to have special educational needs or behavioural problems, study finds
Children breastfed for the first six weeks of life are less likely to have special educational needs or behavioural problems, a study has found.
Babies who were exclusively breastfed or given a mixture of formula and breastmilk for the first six to eight weeks had around a fifth lower chance of developing special educational needs (SEN) than those given formula.
University of Glasgow researchers looked at the health and educational data for 191,745 children born in Scotland from 2004 onwards, and who also attended a state or SEN school between 2009 until 2013.
Of those included in the study, 66.2 per cent of children were formula fed, 25.3 per cent were breastfed, and only 8.5 per cent were mixed fed for the first six to eight weeks.
Babies who were exclusively breastfed or given a mixture of formula and breastmilk for the first six to eight weeks had around a fifth lower chance of developing special educational needs (SEN) than those given formula
Overall, 12.1 per cent of children in this study had SEN.
However, when compared with formula feeding, a history of early-life mixed feeding and exclusive breastfeeding were both associated with a decrease in the risk of having SEN – around 10 and 20 per cent less likely, respectively.
Exclusively breastfed children were around a fifth less likely to have emotional or behavioural difficulties and a quarter physical health conditions.
The findings suggest that having breastmilk in the first few weeks of life may help to reduce the risk of having SEN, or the learning disabilities and difficulties that often cause this.
Dr Michael Fleming, who led the study, said: ‘We know that many women struggle to exclusively breastfeed for the full six months recommended by the WHO.
‘However our study provides evidence that a shorter duration of non-exclusive breastfeeding could nonetheless be beneficial with regards to a child’s learning development.
‘The results of this study suggest that feeding method in infancy could be a modifiable risk factor for the causes of special educational needs, which in turn has the potential to help reduce the burden for affected children, their families and wider society.’
Breastfeeding has a host of health benefits, reducing the chances of some cancers and cardiovascular disease in mothers and protecting the baby against infections while providing ideal nutrition for growth and development.
Yet Britain has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world with fewer than half of mothers (48 per cent) continuing after six to eight weeks.
But this study, reported in Plos Medicine, suggests even this is enough to give baby an advantage.
The authors acknowledged that factors such as social class and the mother’s education were not included and further research is needed.
Dr Danya Glaser, honorary consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children who was not involved in the research, said: ‘There could be factors other than no breast feeding which are associated with special educational needs, such as low socio-economic status.
‘There is also a correlation between no breast feeding and low socio-economic status. This study has not adequately controlled for this.’