Coming soon: AboutKidsHealth is getting a new look! Learn more Watch a video tour

print article
For optimal print results, please use Internet Explorer, Chrome or Safari.

Breastfeed for better behaviour?

The benefits of breastfeeding seem to keep growing. A new study suggests it also improves what many parents would agree to be the most difficult aspect of parenting: their child’s behaviour.

A child learns what is considered to be good behaviour through the interactions they have growing up. Before the age of five, children mainly learn appropriate behaviour in family settings, kindergarten, or day care. However, while learning what constitutes “good” behaviour, most children will also perform bad behaviour. After all, what child doesn’t have the occasional temper tantrum?

In a university-led study, by researchers at Oxford, Essex, York, and University College in London, behavioural problems were defined as “inappropriate behaviours that occur repeatedly over a period of time, have a negative impact on the child’s development and interfere with the child’s or their family’s everyday life”. For the purpose of this study, the authors looked at emotional symptoms like clinginess and anxiety, hyperactivity or restlessness, and conduct problems such as lying and stealing. In other words, these misbehaviours are more than the tears and tantrums of the typical 5-year-old.

The data was taken from the Millennium Cohort study, which included over 10,000 mother-child pairs, with babies born between 2000 and 2001. Parent-completed questionnaires asking to rate the child's behaviour were then used to assess the associations between breastfeeding and behaviour.

Breastfeeding for 4 months or longer was associated with lower odds of behavioural problems at 5 years

The findings showed that children who were breastfed for 4 months or longer had lower odds of displaying behavioural problems, compared to children who had been solely formula-fed. Only 6% of breastfed children had behavioural problems, compared to 16% of the formula-fed babies. Interestingly, even when taking socio-economic differences into account, children who had been breastfed for at least 4 months still showed a 30% lower chance of demonstrating inappropriate behaviour at 5 years old.   

How breastfeeding might affect behaviour

The high levels of essential fatty acids and growth hormones found in breast milk are important for the development and function of the brain and central nervous system. So it is possible that these substances also help in children's behavioural learning.

The mother-baby interaction that occurs while breastfeeding is another likely explanation for reduced behavioural problems. Researchers suggest that the close physical contact may aid in better communication between mother and baby. Further, the lower levels of illnesses in breastfed babies may increase time spent with parents, instead of in unfamiliar settings such as hospitals and doctor’s offices.

Breastfeeding is already known for its health benefits for both mother and baby including the prevention of many illnesses and infections in infants and a lower risk of cancers such as breast and ovarian cancer in mothers. Perhaps better childhood behaviour is another reason to give breastfeeding a try.

For more information on breastfeeding see Feeding Newborn Babies in the Pregnancy and Babies Resource Centre.

Ali Elliott
Editorial Intern, AboutKidsHealth


Heikkilä K, Sacker A, Kelly Y, Renfrew MJ, Quigley MA. Breast feeding and child behaviour in the Millennium Cohort Study. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 9 May 2011 DOI: 10.1136/adc.2010.201970