Although previous research has demonstrated the benefits of exclusive breast-feeding for early child health, the long-term benefits for child development have not been clear. Now, a new study suggests longer durations of exclusive breast-feeding are associated with fewer conduct disorders in later childhood.

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Babies who are EBF for the first 6 months are less likely to have conduct disorders by ages 7-11, according to the new study.

The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, was funded by the Canadian government through Grand Challenges Canada, an organization aimed at improving global health.

The researchers – led by Dr. Ruth M. Bland, at the Africa Centre for Population Health in South Africa – studied over 1,500 children, 900 of whom were involved in an early infant feeding study.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusive breast-feeding (EBF) for the first 6 months of life, at which point solid foods can be introduced to complement breast-feeding for up to 2 years.

Breast milk provides infants with all the nutrients they need to grow. In addition, it contains antibodies that help protect babies from childhood illnesses such as diarrhea and pneumonia.

According to the WHO, adolescents and adults who were breastfed as babies are less likely to be obese or have type 2 diabetes. In addition, they are more likely to perform better on tests assessing intelligence.

However, the organization notes that less than 40 percent of infants under the age of 6 months are EBF globally.

The researchers of this latest study say theirs is the first to examine EBF, HIV exposure, child cognition, executive function, and emotional-behavioral outcomes in primary school-age children in Africa.

Fast facts about EBF
  • Breast-feeding should begin within 1 hour of birth and should be “on demand”
  • Counseling and support should be given to mothers and families to maintain optimal breast-feeding practices
  • Breast-feeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival.
  • Learn more about breast-feeding

“The duration of exclusive breast-feeding of an infant has greater importance than previously realized in several areas of development,” says lead author Dr. Tamsen J. Rochat, of the Human Science Research Council in South Africa.

Results showed that children who were EBF for their first 6 months were 56 percent less likely to have conduct disorders at ages 7-11 years, compared with those who were EBF for less than 1 month.

Dr. Rochat notes that “childhood onset conduct disorders can lead to aggressive or disruptive behaviors, which interfere with learning and peer relationships.” She says this can then result in low self-esteem and other behavioral problems.

“Conduct disorders that start in childhood and persist into the teen years are associated with an increase in antisocial (and potentially violent or criminal) behaviors, poor long-term mental health and low academic achievement in later life,” she adds.

The researchers are also quick to say that previous studies in high-income countries suggest “that the economic cost of conduct disorders is enormous.”

Beyond breast-feeding, the study examined a number of other factors that contributed to a child’s overall health and well-being. For example, the researchers found that attending preschool and the mother’s IQ were important determinants of a child’s cognitive development.

In detail, children who attended preschool for at least 1 year were 74 percent more likely to have higher executive function. The researchers note that executive function influences both educational and social success.

Furthermore, children who were stimulated at home through play were 36 percent more likely to have higher executive function scores.

The study also examined the impact of HIV exposure on the development of the children. It found that HIV-negative children who were born to HIV-positive mothers performed as well as those born to HIV-negative mothers.

Commenting on their findings, the researchers write:

Efforts to improve stimulation at home, reduce maternal stress, and enable crèche [preschool] attendance are likely to improve executive function and emotional-behavioral development of children.

The benefits of EBF in early life are well established and include optimal nutrition and protection from infectious diseases.”

Read more about how breast-feeding improves heart health for preterm infants.