Breastfeeding and fussiness

Breastfed babies are 30 per cent less likely to develop behavioural problems, according to the latest evidence that breast really is best.

To assess the effects of breastfeeding on behaviour, Maria Quigley at the University of Oxford and her colleagues collected data from more than 10,000 mothers in the UK.

When their infants were around 9 months old, each mother was asked whether she breastfed her baby and for how long. When the children reached the age of 5, their behaviour was assessed using a questionnaire completed by the mother.

This so-called Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) is used to identify behavioural problems including anxiety, clinginess, restlessness, lying and stealing in youngsters. The team also noted the mothers’ socioeconomic status, education, smoking and relationship status, as these are all thought to influence offspring behaviour.

After accounting for these factors, the group found that babies exclusively breastfed for at least four months were 30 per cent less likely to exhibit a range of social and behavioural problems or score abnormally high on the SDQ.

As others have noted, this at best assesses what mothers who breastfeed *think* about their children’s behaviour, and that’s important. Also, it neglects the possibility that something else– like having a lifestyle conducive to breastfeeding– could be the common cause of breastfeeding and less fussy children (assuming they actually are less fussy, rather than just being perceived that way).

Interestingly, even the experimenters seem to think it’s likely not to actually be the breastmilk itself but the attachment that results from all the time feeding. If that’s right, then (a) one should emphasise that there are other ways to form said attachment (involving fathers, bottles or both); and (b) the US model– little if any maternity leave, but lots of pressure to pump– isn’t going to bring the benefit.

(Thanks, S and L!)

Link here.

5 thoughts on “Breastfeeding and fussiness

  1. Interesting story. Link seems to be missing (I assume it is supposed to be to http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2011/05/breastfed-children-are-better.html).

    Maybe the real discovery here is that breastfeeding causes mothers to perceive their children’s behaviour as less aggravating, which could still be viewed as a plus (at least by the mothers). :)

    The article says: “The group suggest that the essential fatty acids present in breast milk might be key in enhancing brain development, or that the close mother-baby interaction during breastfeeding might also play a role in improving behavioural learning.” So I don’t think the experimenters were suggesting that it’s likely not to be due to the breastmilk itself. Even the U of Liverpool academic quoted in the article (not one of the experimenters, so far as I can tell) who said he suspected the maternal attachment factor was the most important seems to be saying he suspected that the breastmilk was also responsible.

    Let’s assume for a moment that the interaction (distinct from the breastmilk) is at least a partial explanation for the result here. You mentioned that in that case “one should emphasise that there are other ways to form said attachment (involving fathers, bottles or both)”. But isn’t it reasonable to think that that the non-breastfed group in this study was, in a sense, the “fathers, bottles or both” group? I mean, the infants in non-breastfed group were presumably being fed with bottles, and I suspect that for most of them it was still largely being done by at least one of the parents.

    I would also expect that the amount of time devoted to feeding was comparable in both groups, which (given the earlier assumption) would suggest that the result is not a function of “all the *time* feeding” (emphasis mine). Could it be something about the nature of the interaction itself rather than the duration of interaction – something that was absent in the fathers/bottles/both group?

    Anyway, a ripe area for further study.

  2. Re Nemo’s remarks, it would be interesting to compare babies who receive nothing but breast mil, but mostly from a bottle (say, if the mother works full time and pumps milk at work) with babies who are breast-fed in the ‘straight from the source’ way. This would be a way to isolate the interaction factor from the milk-as-such factor. Does anybody know of studies along these lines?

  3. Another possible confounding factor is pre-natal health. It seems plausible that mothers who breast-feed are also more concerned with their own health during pregnancy.

    But I believe there was a sibling study last year, which suggested that the milk itself played an important role — if I remember right it studied future physical health, muscle development, that sort of thing, rather than behavior.

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