Just four months of breastfeeding can cut the risk of children becoming badly behaved by almost a third, a study suggests.
It found 16 percent of children brought up on formula milk had problems including anxiety, lying, stealing and hyperactivity – more than double the proportion breastfed for at least four months.
When other influences are taken into account, such as social and economic background, the reduction in the risk of behavioural problems at age five brought about by breastfeeding is 30 percent, according to the Oxford University study.
New mothers are advised to breastfeed for the first six months to protect their babies against stomach bugs, chest infections, asthma, eczema and allergies. It also has health benefits for mothers.
The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe, with almost one in three new mothers never attempting it, compared with 2 percent of mothers in Sweden.
The study of 9,500 mothers and babies was led by Dr Maria Quigley of the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University.
Dr Quigley said possible reasons for the findings included greater interaction between mother and child because of close physical contact from an early age.
In the study of infants born in the UK over a 12-month period between 2000 and 2001, 29 percent of children born after a full-term pregnancy and 21 percent of those born prematurely were breastfed for at least four months.
Parents were asked to complete questionnaires designed to assess the behaviour of their children at the age of five.
The results showed that 16 percent of formula-fed children and 6 percent of breastfed children were given abnormal scores, indicating behavioural problems.
For full-term babies, the pattern persisted after taking account of social and economic factors, says a report in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Dr Quigley said: ‘We found that children who were breastfed for at least four months were less likely to have behavioural problems at age five. However, that observation might not have been the direct result of breastfeeding – it could have been down to a number of factors.
‘As a group, mothers who breastfed for four months were very different socially to those who formula fed. They were more likely to be older, better educated and in a higher socio-economic position.’
Dr Quigley added: ‘We just don’t know whether it is because of the constituents in breast milk which are lacking in formula, or the close interaction with the mum during breastfeeding.
‘But it does begin to look like we can add fewer behavioural problems as another potential benefit of breastfeeding.’