Babies who are breastfed are less likely to develop behavioural problems by the time they’re five than those who are bottle fed, researchers have concluded.
Breastfeeding for four months was found to reduce issues such as over-anxiousness, clinginess, restlessness, lying and stealing in children by the age of five.
The research showed that while 6% of breastfed children developed behavioural problems, this rose to 16% of formula-fed children.
The large study looked at the evidence of 10,000 mothers and their babies and was led by teams from the universities of Oxford, York, Essex and University College London. The researchers used data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which is following the development of thousands of babies born in the UK in 2000.
Clearly environmental and social factors can play a big part in a child’s development and behaviour, and it’s known that mums who breastfeed tend to be older, have had a better education and come from a higher socio-economic background.
However, when the researchers adjusted the figures to take these differences into account, they found there was still a 30% higher risk of behavioural problems for children who were formula fed.
The researchers are unable to conclude why breastmilk has this effect. They raise two suggestions:
- Breastmilk itself contains nutrients that promote the development of the brain and central nervous system leading to good behavioural patterns. One possibility is the high proportion of essential fatty acids found in breastmilk but the researchers point out that over the past 10 years formula milk manufacturers have been supplementing formula with essential fatty acids.
- The act of breastfeeding is a positive bonding experience between mum and baby which is known to help development. “Breastfeeding leads to more interaction between the mother and the child, better learning of acceptable behaviours and fewer behavioural problems” states the report.
While there have been previous studies suggesting a link between breastfeeding and behaviour, these have been based on fairly small samples. In contrast, this is a much larger survey and indicates some significant differences between breast and bottlefed children.
“Our results provide even more evidence for the benefits of breastfeeding,” said Maria Quigley of Oxford University, who led the research.