Children who were either exclusively breastfed or fed a mixture of formula and breastmilk for the first six to eight weeks of their life are less likely to experience learning disabilities, a new study has found.
The research studied data from 190,000 children in Scotland to understand the impact of early-life feeding on later development.
The study, led by the University of Glasgow, suggests that consuming breastmilk in the first few weeks of life may help reduce the risk of having special educational needs or learning disabilities.
World Health Organisation guidance recommends that babies are breastfed for the first six months.
However, many women struggle to exclusively breastfeed for this long.
The findings have been published in Plos Medicine journal, however some have questioned the methodology of the study and say it sends an “offensive” and “unhelpful” message around responsibility for mothers.
Clare Murphy, chief executive of the women’s healthcare charity, BPAS, said: “This study implies to women parenting children with special educational needs that how they fed them may explain their challenges.
“The reality is much more complex. Boiling it down to feeding choices sends an offensive and unhelpful message around responsibility to mothers, and we urge extreme caution as to how the findings of this study are disseminated.”
Dr Rosie McNee, co-founder of the infant feeding charity Feed, said: “We have significant concerns around the methodology of this study.
“We know children’s educational needs correspond to their parents’ educational needs, something which parents have no control over and yet, this paper did not account for this fundamental concept.
“This is in part due to the data banks used for infant feeding research which do not capture important information.
“Suggesting causation when all we have is an association, easily explained by factors that have previously been well evidenced, does not help either women or children facing significant challenges at school.”
The study provides evidence that a shorter duration of non-exclusive breastfeeding may still be beneficial for a child’s later learning development.
Researchers looked at the health and educational data for 191,745 children born in Scotland from 2004 onwards.
They also looked at who attended a mainstream or special educational needs school between 2009 and 2013.
Of those studied, 66.2% of children were formula fed while 25.3% were breastfed and only 8.5% were mix fed for the first six to eight weeks.
Overall, 12.1% of children in the study had a special educational need.
However, when compared with formula feeding, a history of early-life mixed feeding and exclusive breastfeeding were both associated with a decrease in the risk of having a special educational need.
The study found children were 10% less likely when on a mix of formula and breastfeeding while they were 20% less likely when exclusively breastfed.
Children who were exclusively breastfed were also less likely to have emotional or behavioural difficulties (around 20% less likely) and physical health conditions (around 25% less likely).
On average, children with special educational needs experience lower educational attainment, higher rates of school absenteeism and exclusion along with higher rates of bullying and maltreatment.
All of these factors can have further impact on a child’s physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Dr Michael Fleming, who led the study at the University of Glasgow’s School of Health and Wellbeing, said: “We know that many women struggle to exclusively breastfeed for the full six months recommended by the WHO, however our study provides evidence that a shorter duration of non-exclusive breastfeeding could nonetheless be beneficial with regards to a child’s learning development.
“The results of this study suggest that feeding method in infancy could be a modifiable risk factor for the causes of special educational need, which in turn has the potential to help reduce the burden for affected children, their families and wider society.”
Commenting on the study, Dr Danya Glaser, visiting professor, UCL, and honorary consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, said: “Correlations are not causal. There could be factors other than no breastfeeding which are associated with special educational needs, such as low socio-economic status.
“There is also a correlation between no breastfeeding and low socio-economic status. This study has not adequately controlled for this.”