A study involving 1 536 children from rural South Africa and published in the peer-reviewed open journal PLOS Medicine has found a significant link between breastfeeding exclusively up to the age of six months and a reduction in both cognitive and emotional behavioural disorders. The study was conducted by a team including local academics and led by Dr Ruth M Bland of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children and Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow.
According to the authors, children who were breastfed were 56% less likely to encounter emotional and behavioural issues during primary school. Boys who were breastfed were twice as likely to score above mean results in learning ability tests. Curiously, girls who weren’t breastfed for more than a month were more likely to score more than average on Auditory Attention tests. Children of highly stressed parents, however, were found to suffer more from emotional and behavioural problems than their peers.
The study, which looked at children of both HIV-positive and -negative mothers (and found no differences between the two groups) didn’t find any link between breastfeeding and performance in cognitive intelligence test. It did, however, find that a mother’s performance in similar tests did correlate with higher performance from her children, with girls benefitting from the effect more than boys.
The authors also found that children who were born to mothers older than 20 performed better in “executive function” tests – such as sorting physical objects – as were those who had been to a creche before attending formal education. Children of working mothers who were the main income provider for their family also scored more highly here.
“The duration of exclusive breastfeeding of an infant has greater importance than previously realized in several areas of development,” said lead author Dr Tamsen J Rochat of the Human Science Research Council, Durban, in a statement.
“For example, childhood onset conduct disorders can lead to aggressive or disruptive behaviours, which interfere with learning and peer relationships, in turn leading to low self-esteem and further behavioural problems. Conduct disorders that start in childhood and persist into the teen years are associated with an increase in antisocial (and potentially violent or criminal) behaviours, poor long-term mental health and low academic achievement in later life.”