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Image of a newborn baby.

Researchers at the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at Oxford Population health have found that children who are breastfed for at least 12 months may be up to 39% more likely to achieve higher grades in their English and Maths GCSEs when compared with children who were not breastfed. The study is published in Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Previous studies have suggested that children breastfed for longer have improved educational outcomes later in life, however these are relatively scarce, and most have not taken into account potential factors that could influence outcomes, such as socioeconomic status and intelligence scores.

The researchers analysed data on a nationally representative group of 4,940 children living in England who were enrolled in the Millennium Cohort Study and the results of their English and Maths GCSEs, which were recorded by the National Pupil Dataset. The researchers also analysed the children’s’ Attainment 8 Score, which measures GCSE results across eight different subjects, including English and Maths.

Key findings:

  • Around one-third (32.8%) of the participants were never breastfed, and the remainder were breastfed for different periods. Only 9.5% were breastfed for at least 12 months;
  • Around one-fifth (19.2%) of children who were breastfed for at least 12 months failed their English GCSE when compared with 41.7% of those who were never breastfed, while 28.5% of those breastfed for at least 12 months achieved a high pass (A and A*) compared with 9.6% among non-breastfed children. 
  • For the Mathematics GCSE, only 23.7% of children who were breastfed for at least 12 months failed their test compared with 41.9% of those never breastfed, while 31.4% of those breastfed for at least 12 months achieved a high pass (A and A*) compared with 11% among non-breastfed children;
  • While these differences appear quite large, when you take into account other aspects of the child’s life and circumstances, the differences are much smaller. For example, for the English GCSE the figures above suggest children breastfed for 12 months or longer are 2.8 times more likely to achieve a high pass, but when we take into account other factors, this falls to 1.39 times more likely (equivalent to a 39% increase).
  • We also found that after taking into account confounding factors, children breastfed for more than four months were 1.12 times more likely to achieve five GCSE passes, than those never breastfed. 

Reneé Pereyra-Elías, lead author of the study, said ‘Breastfeeding duration was associated with improved educational outcomes at age 16 among children living in England, after controlling for important confounders. However, the effect sizes were modest and may be explained, in part, by other factors. Breastfeeding should continue to be encouraged, when possible, as potential improvements in academic achievement constitute only one of its potential benefits. Future studies should adjust for both socioeconomic circumstances (comprehensively) and measures of general intelligence of both parents.’

The study had some limitations in that it was not possible to include all children who were enrolled in the Millennium Cohort Study because they were lost to follow-up or did not consent. Additionally, other factors that could potentially influence the association such as diet, parenting, early education, and changes in socioeconomic status were not considered.

Additional information 9 June 2023

This research forms part of a wider project exploring the relationship between breastfeeding and child cognitive and educational outcomes. Most research to date has found some association, but it is unclear how much of this can be explained by other factors. This project looks at data from two settings which have very different breastfeeding rates (the UK and Peru) and where the confounding structure differs, to better understand the observed association.

Breastfeeding is known to have many health benefits for both mothers and babies. All mothers and parents should make an informed decision about how they feed their baby, and they should be supported in whatever feeding methods they choose.

We are unable to control how our research is interpreted and reported by news outlets once it is published, and it is unfortunate that the press release which was issued by the journal has been misrepresented in some instances.