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Breastfed Babies More Likely to Succeed?

Looking for The Lactivist? She's retired. But you CAN still find Jen blogging. These days, she's runs A Flexible Life. Join her for life, recipes, projects and the occasional rant.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hmmm...as a formula fed child that actually WAS voted "most likely to succeed" in high school (Ha! Bet you thought I got "most likely to whip them out in public" or "most likely to get sued by those porkers, didn't ya?) a study that I ran across today makes me wonder just what I might have been capable of had I been breastfed.

Now we all know that breast milk is best and that there are tons of health benefits for the nursing child. Did you know that according to a decades long study conducted on more than 3000 people in the UK, breastfed children are more likely to grow up to be more successful than their parents? In fact, the study claims that breastfed children are 41% more likely to move up a social class than their formula fed counter parts.

The study
followed 3182 individuals from infancy to their senior years. (Started in 1937, concluded in 1997.) The study claims that they've accounted for possible discrepancies based on region, household income, food expenditure, childhood height, birth order and number of siblings. The study also says that the longer a child was breastfed, the more likely they were to move up a social class.

Now that may sound like good news, but being ever the skeptic, I've got some issues with this study. As I've written in the past, I firmly believe that there are enough proven health benefits to breastfeeding that we really don't need to go on a crusade to prove (through often shaky "studies") that breastfeeding will keep your child from wetting the bed or will ensure that they grow up to be president.

So my issues with the study?

1.) It started off by following 5000 British children in the late 1930's. Whether or not they were breastfed (and for how long) was self reported by the mothers. In the late 90s, 3182 of the study participants were sent a follow-up survey. Just over half of them (1648) returned the survey. When all was said and done, only 1414 of the participants were able to provide information on social class and income from both their childhood years and their adult years.

In other words, the study not only relies on a very small group of individuals, but it also relies on self-reported data. Anyone that's ever taken a stats class or learned about reading studies will tell you that self-reported data is notoriously inaccurate.

2.) They did not adjust the data based on each individual's education levels. It's not hard to theorize that an individual's education level plays a dramatic role in their ultimate social class placement. In other words, people with higher education tend to get higher paying jobs. Duh.

3.) The study data states that those from the lowest initial classes were 54% more likely to have FAILED to respond to the final call for input and data.

4.) When you dig into the details information from the study you find that while more breastfed individuals moved up a class, there were still more bottle fed individuals than breastfed individuals in the highest class levels. Wouldn't that mean that those against breastfeeding could take this same study and say 32% of bottle fed children ended up in the highest social class while just 26% of the breastfed individuals ended up there? To go even further, 28% of the breastfed individuals ended up in the lowest social class while just 22% of the bottle fed individuals ended up in the lowest social class.

See how this study could be interpreted to mean multiple things?

I can see it now...some anti-breastfeeding mom reads this same study and posts to her blog with something like this...

"See? I told you! Turns out that if you're breastfed, you're more likely to end up in a lower social class! That's why my kids are getting formula!"

I guess I just think that there are enough "real" reasons to breastfeed that we don't need to stretch the findings of a study like this. I mean how many moms that aren't convinced to breastfeed by all the proven health benefits are suddenly going to say "Hey! there's a chance my kid may move up a class if I nurse! Let's get this kid on the boob!"

I'm sorry, but I just don't see it.


  1. Anonymous Anonymous | 5:20 PM |  

    In a way, I can see where a breastfed baby could move up in the world successfully. As we all know, breastfed babies tend to be healthier (that also depends on the health of the mother breastfeeding as well) throughout life. In a number cases, people who have a tendency to be sickly individuals depend on others for support and do not choose to venture out into the world (I have a 55 year old aunt who has never lived on her own due to health issues.) Not that that is always the case. There have been cases where sick people change the world. Basically, in summary, Healthier people lead more successful lives than unhealthy people.

  2. Blogger Jennifer | 8:10 PM |  

    Oh I totally see some reasons why they could move up... the lower rates of health issues, the emotional benefits, the potential impact of parenting style...

    But again, if you look at the data, it could just as easily be spun in favor of bottle feeding. That's where my issue is. I just think that we lose a little bit of our battle when it seems like we're stretching the data from studies in order to create new reasons to breastfeed.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous | 8:39 PM |  

    I think the results of this "study" can also account for many things other than simply formula or breastmilk. Allow me to make some generalizations here: I don't mean to offend, but I'm just going on basic class information and not trying to make anyone feel bad.

    From what I've learned, many formula-fed babies come from lower classes to begin with, because there seems to be less education on the issue in the lower classes and those moms are more likely to get WIC which provides free formula. So a baby from a lower class will be more likely to live the rest of their life in that same lower class, regardless of what they were fed, because of the situations that come with being a lower-class citizen.

    In higher classes, moms are more likely to be educated on the benefits of breastfeeding, and so their babies have more of a chance of growing up in the same class or higher because they are already blessed with the benefits of being a member of the privileged class. Would a diet of formula undermine this privilege? Probably not.

    This isn't set in stone, I know some rich moms who fed formula and some poor moms like myself who breastfed (I don't know why more poor moms don't breastfeed - it's free!). But it's something to consider.


  4. Blogger Jennifer | 5:54 AM |  

    Well, keep in mind that this study was conducted on individuals that were infants in the 1930's...in the UK. So WIC issues don't really apply.

    Also, it seems to me that that is VERY early on in the history of formula so:

    1.) It was likely VERY expensive (much more so than it is today) which may mean that bottlefed babies were already in higher social classes (leaving less room for upward mobility.)

    2.) It was early on in the history of formula so it would have been WAY less healthy than formula alternatives are today.

    In fact, my mom was born in the late 40's. She was not breastfed. My grandmother suffered from severe anemia during her pregnancy...so severe that it was a major health risk. She had a lot of trouble with her milk...a shame as she came from the hills of West Virginia where everyone breastfed. I asked grandma what she did (thinking wet nurse) and it turns out that mom was raised on condensed milk and karo syrup. So was her sister. Mom was a teenager when her brother arrived, so formula had come a long way by then and was more affordable.

    Mom's pretty darn healthy...she has some thyroid issues but other than that, nothing at all.

    I consider that luck though...not proof that condensed milk and karo is a good idea.

  5. Anonymous Christy | 6:46 AM |  

    Hmmm... On your point 4, I don't think this is the case. More breastfed babies ended up in the highest social classes (I/II) than bottlefed - 28% vs. 22%. Similarly, fewer breastfed children ended up in the lower social classes (IV/V/other) than bottlefed - 26% vs. 32%. Note that the lower numbers indicate higher "class" (as described toward the end of the Methods section) - kind of confusing, I agree =). So I think it would be hard to spin this data in favour of bottlefeeding.

  6. Blogger Jennifer | 6:50 AM |  


    Wow...I really need more sleep.

    Thanks Christy, you are totally right and I was totally wrong. I was reading it as the higher number meaning higher class and the lower number meaning lower class.

    It actually makes way more sense now.

    Geeze...I feel like I need to "pork-up" and make some big apology that doesn't admit fault. ;)

    That said, I'll still stand by my other points and I still think it's a shaky study that's sort of silly when you consider all the other great (and well-proven) data we have to go on. :)

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