Breastfeeding for longer linked to better exam results

New study suggests breast milk could help secure a child top grades in GCSEs

A woman breastfeeding her child
Breastfeeding is generally encouraged until babies are at least six months old
(Image credit: Westend61 via Getty Images)

Children who are breastfed for at least 12 months are more likely to achieve top grades in future examinations, according to a new study by researchers at Oxford University.

While many parents will “enlist tutors, pay for private education or search for a home in a desirable catchment area” in the quest to secure their children “straight As”, said The Daily Telegraph, the “seeds of academic success” could be sown much earlier.

The study, published in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood journal, examined the association between breastfeeding duration and education achievement in England, for a cohort of almost 5,000 children born between 2000 and 2002.

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The conclusion was that a “longer breastfeeding duration was associated with modest improvements in educational outcomes at age 16”. This was after controlling for “important confounders”.

Children breastfed for 12 months were three times more likely to achieve a grade worth an A or A* in GCSE maths and English, researchers found. Those breastfed for at least four months were approximately 12% more likely than non-breastfed children to pass at least five GCSEs, including English and maths, with the equivalent of a low B or a high C grade.

“Breast milk contains important polyunsaturated fatty acids,” the Daily Mail said, “which are believed to boost brain development.” For this reason, new mothers are encouraged to breastfeed their children for at least six months, according to the NHS, before continuing “for 2 years and beyond, alongside eating other foods”.

The Independent also highlighted other reported benefits of breastfeeding, suggesting it can protect babies from “diseases and infections”, as well as helping to prevent “breast and ovarian cancer” in mothers.

However, the study should not worry mothers who do not breastfeed. Dr Reneé Pereyra-Elías, who led the new research, stated that the difference was “modest” when it came to test scores, CNN reported

“It isn’t possible for every family to breastfeed, and those who don’t should not be shamed or feel guilty that they might be putting their children at a disadvantage,” he said.

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Rebekah Evans joined The Week as newsletter editor in 2023 and has written on subjects ranging from Ukraine and Afghanistan to fast fashion and "brotox". She started her career at Reach plc, where she cut her teeth on news, before pivoting into personal finance at the height of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis. Social affairs is another of her passions, and she has interviewed people from across the world and from all walks of life. Rebekah completed an NCTJ with the Press Association and has written for publications including The Guardian, The Week magazine, the Press Association and local newspapers.