Breastfeeding Helps to Offset Early Disadvantages

From the University of London

BreastfeedingBreastfeeding may be particularly important to the educational and emotional development of children from single-parent and low-income families, new research suggests.

Previous studies have reported that the high nutritional content of breast milk can increase a baby’s IQ. Other research has found that breastfed children are at an advantage because their mothers are, on average, better-off and more articulate.

However, a new study from the Institute of Education, London, which involved 1,136 mothers, strengthens the argument that breastfeeding is also associated with more positive parenting practices that can continue beyond infancy.

Breastfeeding Strengthens Mother-Baby Attachment

Researchers who analyzed the behavior of mothers reading a storybook to their one-year-old children found that, on average, those who breastfed made more effort to engage their infants in the book than mothers who bottle-fed. In general, mothers with more positive attitudes towards breastfeeding also appeared to have a warmer relationship with their babies.

The greatest differences in behavior were between two groups of single and low-income mothers — those who breastfed for six to 12 months, and those who bottle-fed. Poorer women who breastfed interacted with their babies during the book-reading exercise almost as well as more advantaged mothers did. However, low-income mothers who bottle-fed their babies tended to communicate with them much less well than other mothers, the researchers say.

Marital status had no effect on the quality of a mother’s interaction with her child, provided she had breastfed for six to 12 months. In fact, single mothers who had breastfed for this period made slightly more effort than other mothers to explain the storybook to their child.

A repeat experiment four years later found that mothers who had been on a low income when their child was one, but had breastfed for more than six months, had a higher quality of interaction with their five-year-old than other mothers. They also made more effort to engage their child in the book-reading exercise than mothers who had not breastfed. By contrast, breastfeeding appeared to have no lasting effect on the parenting behaviors of married and higher-income mothers.

Study Author: Breastfeeding Especially Important for Single and Low-Income Parents

The report’s principal author, Leslie Gutman, research director of the Institute’s Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, says that the age five findings underscore the “protective” influence of breastfeeding for lone parent and low-income families.  Future studies should investigate the processes behind the findings, she suggests. Researchers should attempt to establish, for example, whether skin-to-skin contact forms stronger bonds between breastfed infants and their mothers which, in turn, lead to more positive parenting practices.

Report Indicates a Need for Change in Government Policy, Improvement in Education

Gutman also says that the findings provide support for government policies that encourage breastfeeding, particularly for more disadvantaged mothers. “Mothers in such challenging circumstances may face more obstacles to breastfeeding, especially for a longer period of time,” she points out. “They may lack role models and encouragement, or they may be under greater pressure to return to work when their child is still very young.”

If a mother works on a short-term casual basis, or is an agency worker, she may not qualify for maternity leave, and if she earns less than £90 per week, on average, she does not qualify for Statutory Maternity Pay. This may act as an incentive to stop breastfeeding and return to work as soon as possible, the study says.

“New mothers, particularly in deprived communities, may therefore require more than information leaflets,” the researchers comment. “Rather, interventions that offer early and ongoing support and encouragement to manage breastfeeding may be needed: this may come from financial support in order to enable a delay in return to work and/or workplace nurseries where mothers can visit and breastfeed their babies during the day. Meanwhile, campaigns such as ‘Be a star’, run by Blackpool Primary Care Trust (PCT) and North Lancashire Teaching PCT to provide role models for young mothers, may be a way of highlighting the issue.”

The Institute of Education research, which was funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, is based on a new analysis of previously unreported data that were originally collected as part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the mid-1990s.

Report Also Shows Social Mothers as Having Stronger Attachments with Their Babies

Gutman and her colleagues also found that mothers with extensive social networks interacted with their infants more positively, on average, than mothers with more limited social circles. “At a community level, the finding implies that the networking and social interactions that go on between parents in children’s centres, early-years settings, community groups and many other community venues,  such as libraries, and health and leisure centres, are of great value,” they say.

Efforts to improve maternal health could also help to build parenting capabilities as postnatal depression impairs communication between mother and child, the researchers add.

For More Information

“Nurturing Parenting Capability: The Early Years,” by Gutman, John Brown, and Rodie Akerman, can be downloaded at

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