Breastfeeding leads to better academic achievement in high school and an increased likelihood of attending college, according to a new study by Daniel Rees, PhD, economics professor at University of Colorado Denver and American University professor Joseph Sabia. The study, published on June 11 in the Journal of Human Capital, looked at the academic achievement of siblings—one of whom was breastfed as an infant and one of whom was not—and discovered that an additional month of breastfeeding was associated with an increase in high school GPA of 0.019 points and an increase in the probability of college attendance of 0.014.
According to the study, which used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, more than one half of the estimated effect of being breastfed on high school grades and approximately one-fifth of the estimated effect on college attendance can be linked to improvements in cognitive ability and health.
“By focusing on differences between siblings, we can rule out the possibility that family- level factors such as socioeconomic status are driving the relationship between having been breastfed and educational attainment,” said Rees.
Professors Rees and Sabia were able to examine the breastfeeding histories and high school grades of 126 siblings from 59 families. Information on high school completion and college attendance data was obtained from 191 siblings belonging to 90 families. By comparing the academic achievement of siblings, this study was able to account for the influence of a variety of difficult-to-measure factors such as maternal intelligence and the quality of the home environment. It is the first study to have used sibling data in order to examine the effect of breastfeeding on high school completion and college attendance.
“The results of our study suggest that the cognitive and health benefits of breastfeeding may lead to important long-run educational benefits for children,” said Sabia, a professor of public policy in AU’s School of Public Affairs whose research focuses on health economics. “But this is just a start. Much work remains to be done to establish a definitive causal link.”