The effect of breastfeeding on children's educational test scores at nine years of age: results of an Irish cohort study

Soc Sci Med. 2011 May;72(9):1515-21. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.03.002. Epub 2011 Mar 21.


This retrospective cross-sectional paper examines the relationship between early breastfeeding exposure and children's academic test scores at nine years of age independent of a wide range of possible confounders. The final sample comprised 8226 nine-year-old school children participating in the first wave of the Growing Up in Ireland study. The children were selected through the Irish national school system using a 2-stage sampling method and were representative of the nine-year population. Information relating to breastfeeding initiation and exposure duration was obtained retrospectively at nine years of age via parental recall and children's academic performance was assessed using standardised reading and mathematics tests. Hierarchical linear regression analysis with robust standard errors to control for clustering at the school level was used to quantify the effect of breastfeeding on children's test scores. Propensity score matching was used to compare treatment effects across groups defined by their propensity to breastfeed. In unadjusted analysis, children who were breastfed scored 8.67 percentage points higher on reading and 7.42 percentage points higher on mathematics compared to those who were never breastfed. While the breastfeeding advantage attenuated appreciably when adjusted for a range of child, maternal, socio-economic and socio-environmental characteristics, children who were breastfed continued to enjoy a significant test score advantage of 3.24 (p<0.001) and 2.23 (p<0.001) percentage points on reading and mathematics respectively compared to those who were never breastfed. Any amount of breastfeeding was associated with significantly higher test scores than no exposure, but evidence of a dose-response relationship was weak. The results of the propensity score matching analysis indicated that the test score advantage of breastfed children is robust and that the magnitude of the effect varies across groups defined by their propensity to breastfeed, being largest amongst the most socially disadvantaged and falling to near zero among the most advantaged group.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Breast Feeding*
  • Child
  • Cognition
  • Cohort Studies
  • Educational Measurement*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Ireland
  • Male
  • Odds Ratio
  • Young Adult