Analyzing decades-old data, scientists found that children who had been breastfed were consistently more likely to have climbed the social ladder than those who had not been breastfed.
The research looked at more than 30,000 subjects who were born in either 1958 or 1970. More than 68 percent of mothers breastfed their children in 1958, compared with 36 percent in 1970.
After ascertaining whether the subjects had been breastfed, the scientists then compared people's social class as children (based on the social class of their father when they were 10 or 11) with their social class as adults, measured when they were 33 or 34.
The research 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.
The researchers said that 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.
Interestingly, the size of the "breastfeeding effect" was the same in both time periods. Breastfeeding increased the odds of upwards mobility by 24 percent and reduced the odds of downward mobility by around 20 percent for both groups.
Intellect and stress responses accounted for around a third of the total benefit of breastfeeding, the researchers explained. "Breastfeeding enhances brain development, which boosts intellect, which in turn increases upwards social mobility. Breastfed children also showed fewer signs of stress," they note.
The researchers admit 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.
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Source: British Medical Journal