Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Breastfeeding Helps You Rise in Social Class

This is an amazing result. I am almost reluctant to report it, though, because no one has a very good idea why it is true.

British researchers have been following a large group of babies born in the late 1930s into their 70s. There was not a big difference in class among breastfeeders in those days (as there is now, when breastfeeding is skewed toward the middle class). Yet breastfed babies were 41% more likely than other kids to move up a class, net of their initial class and family income. Breastfed kids were even 16% more likely to move up a class than their own bottlefed siblings.

One thing not reported in the press account: whether birth order and family size mattered. My best guess is that first-borns were more likely to be breastfed. This might explain the intra-sibling difference. First-borns would then be more likely to move up in class for a variety of reasons, not least because their parents wanted them to. It may also be that all the kids were more likely to be breastfed in smaller families. We know that later-born children in large families are more likely to have lower IQs and lower rates of upward mobility. If smaller families were more likely to breastfeed all the kids, and less likely to have low-achieving later-borns, this might account for the main finding.

Just a guess, though. Maybe La Leche League might want to invest in some research grants.


SPorcupine said...

Being breastfed is a sign that your mother found, understood, and used scientific data and medical recommendations. She didn't follow what she saw in commercial advertisments or what must have seemed, at least at the beginning, like the more convenient bottle option.

Mamas like that trump current economic status every time.

Gruntled said...

Do you think that was so in the '30s? My grandmother had babies in the '30s in this country, and she thought breastfeeding was vulgar.

Michael Stringer said...

My mother, on the advice of her doctor, bottle-fed my older sister, but then reverted to breastfeeding me and my younger sister (this time, based on a different doctor's advice). My older sister, being the quintessential first born, has become quite successful.

This is merely anecdotal, but it points to the possibility that many factors are at play, including doctor's whim, social norms, and even toxins from local food and water sources.

In our region, breastfeeding currently is out of vogue and my wife is occasionally chastised for being 'uncovered' in public when she is feeding our infant. I think they are just jealous of our little one's potential for social class upward mobility ;)

Unknown said...

I was breastfed only briefly in my childhood. Now I know what my excuse can be!

Gruntled said...

Yes, I dom't think this argument works very well at the individual level -- you need large populations to see a pattern.

I which community is breastfeeding out of vogue? It is certainly supported in academic world.

SPorcupine said...

The 30s would be a good test. At that time, mothers would not have found the kind of scientific and medical arguments for breastfeeding that are available now--and bottle-feeding took more work than it does now. If my "mother's take on life" theory is right, a similar study would not have found an advantage for breastfed children.

However, even now, with the full weight of medicine pushing for breastfeeding, it's not a majority practice in this country. My memory is not trustworthy on this, but I think the numbers are in the ballpark of 25% of women start out with it, but only 10% last more than a month or two.

Gruntled said...

Child Trends reports these rates for breastfeeding now:
Percent of mothers who breasted their infants to six months in 2004:
Black: 21%
White: 38
Hispanic: 40
Asian: 40