Breast-feeding may help children climb social ladder

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Breast-feeding a child may give him or her a leg up towards the top of the social ladder.

A new study published in BMJ journal Archives of Disease in Childhood on June 24 revealed that children who were breast-fed moved higher up in social class than their counterparts.

"Breast-feeding has lifelong benefits," study author Amanda Sacker, a researcher at the University College London, said to HealthDay. "Breast-feeding not only gives children a good start in life, but also boosts chances of a healthy and successful adulthood. For most women, breast-feeding offers them a simple way to improve their child's life chances."

The World Health Organization says babies should be exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of life, and then receive a combination of food and mother's milk through 2 years of age. If 90 percent of families breast-fed for the recommended 6-month period, almost 1,000 infant deaths would be prevented and $13 billion in annual medical costs would be saved.

In reality, the rate is much lower. In the U.S., about 45 percent of mothers were breast-feeding at six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also noted that 40 percent of parents gave their infants solid food before they were 4 months old.

Breast-feeding is especially important according to experts because it provides protections for newborns and infants, including transferring antibodies, cells and hormones that could protect a child from illness. Children who are breast-fed have lower rates of ear infections, diarrhea, respiratory infections, asthma, Type 2 diabetes and necrotizing entercolitis (which attacks the gastrointestinal tract in premature infants) than formula-fed children.

Giving the child breast milk also has benefits for the mother. It helps them save money on formula and bond with their child. Healthwise, it can lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and postpartum depression, which affects 10 to 15 percent of all mothers within one year of giving birth.

Researchers looked at 17,419 children born in 1958 and 16,771 kids born in 1970. When the children reached 5 or 7 years old, researchers asked their mothers whether they had been breast-fed. They compared the children who were breast-fed for less than four weeks with those who had received their mother's milk for four weeks and more.

Then they followed up to see the child's social class when they turned 10 or 11 years old. Social class was measured by a four-point scale assigning ratings to unskilled/semi-skilled manual to professional/managerial. The figures were based on the child's father's social class. In addition, the kids were given other tests to assess other outside factors, including brain (cognitive) development and stress scores.

The children were followed up with regularly every few years to mitigate any other factors that could influence the results. At the age of 33 or 34, the researchers followed up with the children again and assessed their social class.

The researchers discovered more than two-thirds (68 percent) of mothers breast-fed their children in 1958, but only 36 percent did so in 1970.

Regardless of when they were born and when other factors were discounted, the children who were breast-fed were more likely to increase their social status up than those who did not get breast-fed. Breast-feeding increased the odds of a higher social position by 24 percent and reduced the chance of downward movement by about 20 percent.

Intellect and low stress levels increased the beneficial impact of breast-feeding by about 36 percent. Breast-feeding has been known to help brain development, which in turn increases intellect and has an effect on social hierarchy. The breast-fed children were also less likely to be stressed.

Because the results were consistent, the study suggested that breast-feeding caused the move up the social ranks. However, the researchers noted that they aren't certain if it's the breast milk itself or the skin-to-skin contact and bonding that helped children move up the social ladder.

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