Studies suggest that breast-feeding can be good for a baby’s health, and now there’s fresh evidence that it may help children to climb the social ladder as well.
What does breast-feeding have to do with social status? According to the researchers from University College London, who reported their findings in the journal BMJ, breast-feeding can impact cognitive development, and that accounted for just over a third of nursing’s effect on improvements in social status. What’s more, the practice also seemed to lower the chances of downward mobility.
To assess the impact of breast-feeding on later social status, the researchers compared two cohorts of people, including more than 17,400 individuals born in 1958, and over 16,700 people born in 1970. When their kids were about 5 years old, mothers in both groups were asked if they had breast-fed their children. The researchers used the children’s fathers’ income and job to determine the youngsters’ initial social status when they were about 10 to 11 years old and compared this with their social status decades later, when they reached age 33 or 34. And to get some idea of the way in which breast-feeding might be influencing social status, the scientists also evaluated the children’s cognitive skills and stress responses when they were about 10 or 11.
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Breast-feeding rates were lower among the participants born in 1970, but the breakdown of high social achievers in the two populations remained the same. For both groups, breast-feeding increased the odds of upward mobility — defined by the researchers on a 4-point scale ranging from unskilled/semiskilled manual to professional/managerial — by 24% and lowered the likelihood for downward social mobility by 20%. The effect was greatest for children who were breast-fed for more than four weeks, and the social-status gap was largest between those who were breast-fed for four weeks or more and those who received only formula. The breast-feeding effect held even after the researchers accounted for the obvious factors, such as broad socioeconomic influences including employment rates and national economic stability, as well as individual characteristics like parental education.
According to the authors, the benefits shown by the babies in cognitive and intellectual development could have helped them to climb up the social ladder, since they might have adapted more readily to new situations and accepted challenges; the brain testing also suggested that the breast-fed children were less likely to experience emotional stress and better able to cope with anxiety if they did.
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But they acknowledge that their study could not tease apart whether this advantage resulted from the breast milk and its known nutrients and immune-system components, or from the intimate contact between mother and child that breast-feeding requires. Some studies have found a relationship between the skin-to-skin contact during nursing and improved bonding, which can in turn affect a child’s ability to respond and cope with stress.
While more research into the role that breast-feeding may have on social development is needed, the results are likely to fuel ongoing debates over breast-feeding policies. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics said it considered breast-feeding a “public-health issue and not only a lifestyle choice,” based on studies linking breast-feeding with lower rates of infections, obesity, diabetes and heart disease among children and, for mothers, a reduced risk of breast cancer. But not all moms are able to nurse, and many who start aren’t able to continue for the six months recommended by the World Health Organization. Advocates of exclusive breast-feeding have also clashed with those who promote a modified approach of nursing combined with formula when necessary. For new moms, such information can be overwhelming. But as more data on both the benefits — social as well as physical — and challenges of breast-feeding accumulate, they may find themselves in a better position to decide how to incorporate nursing in ways that work for them.