Children who were breast-fed do better in high school and are more likely to go to college than their bottle-fed siblings, researchers report.
While the health benefits of breast-feeding to both infants and mothers is well known, this study suggests the practice may have educational benefits as well. This is the first study using data on siblings to examine the effect of breast-feeding on high school completion and college attendance, the researchers noted.
"We compare sibling pairs-one of whom was breast-fed and one of whom was not, or siblings who were breast-fed for different durations and find consistent evidence that breastfed children have higher high school grade point averages and a higher probability of attending college," said study coauthor Joseph Sabia, PhD, an assistant professor of public policy at American University in Washington, DC.
The researchers ruled out factors, such as socioeconomic status, in the connection between breast-feeding and educational achievement, Dr. Sabia said.
The report was published in the Journal of Human Capital.
For the report, Dr. Sabia and his colleague Daniel Rees, PhD, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver, used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They looked at the breast-feeding histories and high school grades of 126 siblings from 59 families; high school graduation and college attendance data was obtained for 191 siblings from 90 families.
"If you're breast-fed, your high school GPA goes up substantially, and the likelihood that you go on to college goes up," Dr. Rees said.
For every month you are breast-fed, your high school GPA goes up about 1% and your probability of going to college goes up about 2%, Dr. Rees added.
"We found that more than one-half of the estimated effect of being breast-fed on high school grades can be linked to improvements in cognitive ability and health," Dr. Sabia said. "Thus, we conclude that improvements in cognitive ability and adolescent health may be important pathways through which breast-feeding affects long-term academic achievement," he said.
About one-fifth of the increased likelihood of going to college appears to be due to breastfeeding, Dr. Rees added.
"This is another benefit of breast-feeding," Dr. Rees said. "We know that breast-feeding leads to better health, higher IQ, but the next step is what are the implications, and this is an important implication," he said.
David L. Katz, MD, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, said this study may not prove a connection between school performance and breast-feeding, but it could be another reason to breast-feed your baby.
"An array of health benefits is convincingly associated with breast-feeding, including a reduced risk of both infections and obesity in the breast-fed child," Dr. Katz said. "Less certain, but long suggested, is enhanced cognitive development in breast-fed children as well."
It could be that factors that determine whether or not a baby is breast-fed are an important piece of the puzzle, Dr. Katz noted. "Why a baby is fed one way or another may matter as much as which way a baby is fed," he said. "A study of association such as this cannot fully resolve that issue."