Objective: A recent meta-analysis showed that breast-feeding confers a 3.2 point increment in cognitive function through adolescence. Little is known, however, about possible longer-term effects of breast-feeding. We investigated the effect of breast-feeding on educational attainment, and on a range of cognitive skills in midlife, in the British 1946 birth cohort.
Design: Regression analyses were used to test the association between breast-feeding, likelihood of obtaining advanced educational qualifications by age 26 years, and three cognitive test scores at age 53 years: i.e. reading ability (NART), timed visual search and verbal memory. These associations were then adjusted for social confounding variables and for cognitive ability at age 15 years.
Setting and subjects: One thousand seven hundred and thirty-nine male and female participants in the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, also known as the British 1946 birth cohort, distributed throughout England, Wales and Scotland.
Results: Breast-feeding was significantly and positively associated with educational attainment, an effect that was independent of early social background, but largely accounted for by cognitive ability at age 15 years. Breast-feeding was significantly and positively associated with the NART at 53 years, an effect that was independent of early social background, educational attainment and adult social class, but, again, largely accounted for by cognitive ability at 15 years. There was no independent effect of breast-feeding on timed visual search or verbal memory at 53 years.
Conclusion: The benefit of breast-feeding has long-term potential impact across the life course through its influence on childhood cognition and educational attainment.