Woman, breastfeedingA recent study (here is the full text PDF, here is a summary) has found that there may be a link between breastfeeding, especially longer term breastfeeding, and upward social mobility.

The study looked at data taken from children in 1937-1939 on their breastfeeding history and social class (measured by the occupation of the head of household i.e. fathers). It then looked at follow-up data taken from the grown-up children in 1997-1998 to see what their social status was at that time (for married women, this was measured by the husband’s occupation, and for everyone else by the person’s own occupation).

Even after adjusting for other factors (such as original class, age, sex, place of birth), the statisticians found that children who were breastfed were 41% more likely to move up a class than children who were not breastfed. The longer a child was breastfed, the better the chances of the child moving up in social class: children breastfed more than 12 months were 54% more likely to move up a class than those who were not breastfed at all.

It is suggested that one reason for better life outcomes may be that the various already-proven benefits of breastfeeding (such as better health, taller adult height, higher IQ, better emotional health due to improved maternal bonding) could lead to better opportunities and could mean that people were better-placed to take advantage of opportunities that did present themselves.

However, it is important to be clear that this aint necessarily so. It was clearly stated that there were quite likely to be some unrecorded confounding factors, so the conclusions should not be taken as better than tentative. For example:

  • In the early part of this century, there was no particular association between a person’s class and the likelihood of breastfeeding (unlike today when middle class mums are more likely to breastfeed – in fact back then middle class mums were if anything more likely to bottle feed, because they could afford to buy the formula and pay for nannies). However, that does not mean that there are not other factors that both make a mother more likely to breastfeed and make a child more likely to be successful in their future career. For example, it may be that bottle-feeding mothers were those who had to work, and who therefore had less time and energy to put into active parenting of their children.
  • It was thought possible that babies who were born sickly were more likely to be bottle fed (perhaps because they were not thought to be worth the effort of breastfeeding, perhaps because they had difficulty getting started, perhaps because people thought formula better for you – more medicinal? – than mother’s milk… ) or that there might be other factors making babies both less likely to be breastfed and less likely to succeed in their careers.

Finally, much as I would like to put on my Breasts Rule hat, I should also point out that infant formula is probably less bad for you now than it was in the 1920s and 1930s when the children studied were born. Thus the health outcomes for non-breastfed babies these days will probably not be as bad as they were for non-breastfed babies 80 years ago. This is not to say that they will be good or that formula even approaches equivalence with breastfeeding*: just that infant formula these days isn’t quite so rough and ready as it was back then.

[* Clarification: I recognise that formula has its place, and I would never wish to criticise or blame any mother who uses it – and I know that many mothers resort to formula because the information and support that they need to breastfeed successfully is not available to them. However, other things being equal (which they almost never are, I know) I will not pretend that formula is a “valid choice” when compared with breastmilk. It isn’t.]

So – an interesting study, but really far from conclusive. Breastfeeding ROCKS, but I think it will be a long time before we can say that breastfeeding affects a child’s career prospects…

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Something else I thought was interesting about this study was that the babies born in the 1920s and 1930s were breastfed at a rate of around 70%, which is more or less exactly the same as it is today! This goes against my former belief that breastfeeding rates have been in steady decline over the course of a century. You live and learn.On the other hand, in the earlier study babies only counted as “ever breastfed” if they were breastfed for at least 2 weeks, whereas these days “ever breastfed” literally means, ever – if you had even one attempt that counts.We obviously cannot know how many babies in the original study were breastfed but not for as long as two weeks , so were counted as never breastfed. My mum, however, has the idea from somewhere that there is something magical about doing it for two weeks (as long as you do it for at least 2 weeks, that’s the important bit, after that it doesn’t matter so much – ??!) If this is, or was once, a popular myth then I suppose it is possible that lots of babies got a few feeds but stopped just short of the magical 2-week mark.

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