Breastfeeding boosts ability to climb social ladder

25 June 2013

Breastfeeding not only boosts children’s chances of climbing the social ladder, but it also reduces the chances of downwards mobility, suggests study based on 1958 and 1970 cohort data.

The findings are based on changes in the social class of  17,419 members of the 1958 National Child Development Study and 16,771 members of the 1970 British Cohort Study.

Researchers at the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London, compared whether or not the cohort members had been breastfed to changes in their social class status between childhood (age five or seven) and adulthood (age 33 or 34).

Social class was categorised on a four-point scale ranging from unskilled/semi-skilled manual to professional/managerial.

The research also took account of a wide range of other potentially influential factors, derived from regular follow-ups every few years. These included children’s brain (cognitive) development and stress scores, which were assessed using validated tests at the ages of 10-11.

Significantly fewer children were breastfed in 1970 than in 1958. More than two-thirds (68%) of mothers breastfed their children in 1958, compared with just over one in three (36%) in 1970.

Social mobility also changed over time, with those born in 1970 more likely to be upwardly mobile, and less likely to be downwardly mobile, than those born in 1958.

None the less, when background factors were accounted for, children who had been breastfed were consistently more likely to have climbed the social ladder than those who had not been breastfed. This was true of those born in both 1958 and 1970.

What’s more, the size of the “breastfeeding effect” was the same in both time periods. Breastfeeding increased the odds of upwards mobility by 24% and reduced the odds of downward mobility by around 20% for both groups.

Intellect and stress accounted for around a third (36%) of the total impact of breastfeeding: breastfeeding enhances brain development, which boosts intellect, which in turn increases upwards social mobility. Breastfed children also showed fewer signs of stress.

The evidence suggests that breastfeeding confers a range of long-term health, developmental, and behavioural advantages to children, which persist into adulthood, say the authors.

They note that it is difficult to pinpoint which affords the greatest benefit to the child – the nutrients found in breast milk or the skin to skin contact and associated bonding during breastfeeding.

“Perhaps the combination of physical contact and the most appropriate nutrients required for growth and brain development is implicated in the better neurocognitive and adult outcomes of breastfed infants,” they suggest.

Read the full article

Sacker, A., Kelly, Y, Iacovou, M., Cable, N. and Bartley, M. (2013) Breast feeding and intergenerational social mobility: What are the mechanisms? Archives of Disease in Childhood, Published Online First 24 June 2013.


Professor Amanda Sacker, Director, ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health (ICLS), University College London (UCL), London, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 1711 or +44(0)7969 181 506

Notes for editors:

  1. The 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS) began as a cross-sectional perinatal mortality survey of more than 17,000 infants born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week in 1958. Cohort members were subsequently followed up at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46 and 50. The age 55 survey will be conducted this year. NCDS provides a wide range of information on cohort members’ life-course trajectories and circumstances, such as physical and mental health, education, employment, and housing. More at
  2. The 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970. BCS70 has collected information on health, physical, educational and social development, and economic circumstances, among many other factors. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been seven surveys of all cohort members at ages 5, 10, 16, 26, 30, 34 and 38. More at
  3. This research was published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, one of more than 40 specialist titles published by BMJ (formerly BMJ Group). It is co-owned with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

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