OXFORD, United Kingdom — Mothers who breastfeed may contribute to their children’s improved performance on school exams all the way into their teenage years, a new study says. According to researchers in the United Kingdom, children who were breastfed for longer durations were more likely to achieve higher results in their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) at age 16 compared to their non-breastfed peers.
This correlation persisted even after adjusting for variables such as socio-economic status and the parents’ intellectual ability. A team from the University of Oxford evaluated data from a large group of British children who participated in the Millennium Cohort Study. This study enlisted just under 19,000 children born in the U.K. between 2000 and 2002.
The children were subsequently observed at ages three, five, seven, 11, 14, 17, and 22. This data was connected to the National Pupil Dataset, which maintains the academic data of students enrolled in English state schools. The researchers then examined a nationally representative group of nearly 5,000 participants from England up to age 16, focusing on the results of their secondary school exams, specifically their GCSEs in English and math.
The researchers also analyzed the Attainment 8 score, the sum of all the GCSEs taken by the children. Around a third of the teenagers, slightly more than 32 percent, were never breastfed, while the rest were breastfed for varying lengths of time. A mere 9.5 percent were breastfed for at least 12 months.
The study found that the duration of breastfeeding directly correlated with the children’s exam performance. Approximately 19 percent of children who were breastfed for more than 12 months failed their English GCSE, compared to 41.7 percent of those who were never breastfed. Among the teens, 28.5 percent of those breastfed for at least 12 months achieved a high pass, either an A or A+, compared to 9.6 percent among non-breastfed children.
For GCSE Math, roughly 24 percent of children who were breastfed for over 12 months failed their test compared to 41.9 percent of those who never breastfed. Additionally, just over 31 percent of those who were breastfed for at least 12 months achieved either an A or an A+ compared to 11 percent among non-breastfed children.
Compared to children who never breastfed, those who breastfed for at least 12 months were 39 percent more likely to have a high pass for both exams and were 25 percent less likely to fail the English exam.
Prior studies have proposed that longer durations of breastfeeding might lead to enhanced educational outcomes later in life. However, such results are relatively rare, and most of these studies have not considered potential influencing factors. These factors may include higher socioeconomic status mothers or mothers with higher intelligence scores being more likely to breastfeed their children for longer and have children who achieve higher exam results.
The study had some limitations; it wasn’t possible to link the National Pupil Dataset for approximately 4,000 children who didn’t consent to be followed. Additionally, a further 1,292 children were not tracked up to age 14 when maternal cognitive ability was measured.
“Breastfeeding duration was associated with improved educational outcomes at age 16 among children living in England, after controlling for important confounders,” says Dr. Reneé Pereyra-Elías, from the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, and the study’s author, in a media release. “However, the effect sizes were modest and may be susceptible to residual confounding. Breastfeeding should continue to be encouraged, when possible, as potential improvements in academic achievement constitute only one of its potential benefits.”
“Future studies should adjust for both socioeconomic circumstances (comprehensively) and maternal general intelligence.”
The study is published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
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South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.