Smart policy? If UK breastfeeding rates rose by 1%, kids would earn £33m more collectively

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Of the 10,000 children included in this research, 26% of them had never been breastfed. © / Pilin_Petunyia
Of the 10,000 children included in this research, 26% of them had never been breastfed. © / Pilin_Petunyia

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Even marginal increases in breast feeding rates could be worth millions to society when considering the benefit to cognitive development, UK and German researchers have calculated using over 10,000 school exam results.

Using a model based on the assumption that improved UK General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam results meant higher future salaries, researchers calculated that if the UK saw a 1% increase in breastfeeding rates, the 800,000 children born in the UK per year could collectively earn over £33 million (€40 million) more over their working lifetime.

The researchers from the Institute for Market Research, Strategy and Planning in Munich, Germany and the University of Bristol in the UK urged policy makers to factor these projections in when calculating the cost of publicly-funded campaigns for breastfeeding.  

The study used breastfeeding rates from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), an ongoing cohort of 14,541 recruited pregnant women in 1991 and a consequent 13,988 children (that lived until 12 months).

Fast forward 16 years and the researchers assessed the educational successes of these children, defined by the achievement of five high grade GCSE exam passes. GCSE scores were available for 10,107 of the children in the cohort. 

They found a positive association between being breast-fed and this education record, which remained significant after adjustment for possible confounders. 

In the UK lifetime gross income was calculated to be £67,500 (€89,400) higher for individuals who had achieved five high-grade GCSE passes compared to those who had not. 

Using this model the researchers calculated that being breast-fed up to six months would increase the child’s expected lifetime income by £4208 (€5533). Breast-feeding for six months or more doubled this to £8799 (€11577). 

Of the 10,000 children included in this research, 26% of them had never been breastfed, according to the self-completion questionnaires. 

calculator tax cost UK budget profit Anthony Brown
© / Anthony Brown

The researchers forecast just a 1% reduction of this non-breastfed rate would generate a total economic benefit of over £400,000 (about €500,000). 

If this 1% difference was applied to the total number of UK births of about 800,000 children per year, this would generate a gain of over £33 million (about €40 million) over the working lifetime. 

“The model shows that the increased educational attainment associated with being breast-fed has a positive economic benefit for society, even from small improvements in breast-feeding rates,"​ they wrote in the British Journal of Nutrition. 

They said other positive health effects of breastfeeding had not been included and therefore these calculations of economic benefits for the individual and society were likely to be an underestimation of the actual gains that could be made. 

They concluded that publicly-funded breastfeeding promotion was likely to be “highly cost-effective”​ and urged policymakers to take these calculations into consideration. 

A matter of policy 

Recommendations for exclusive breastfeeding for the first four to six months of life have come from the likes of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). 

The WHO reiterated its six month recommendation last year when figures suggested rising obesity rates among mothers and ready availability and attractiveness of formula had left Europe with the world’s lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.

infant formula milk dairy breastfeeding  Freer Law
© / Freer Law

The report showed within 21 European countries only 13% of mothers exclusively fed their babies until six months. In Southeast Asia this was 43%.

European countries are subject to strict bans and restrictions on infant formula marketing​ and restrictions on follow-on formula marketing.

Such EU rules are currently undergoing a rethink as part of new regulation on food for special groups (FSG).  

This month one Member of European Parliament (MEP), Green’s Keith Taylor, accused the draft of failing​ to sufficiently safeguard the practice of breastfeeding.

Yet his concerns were batted off by fellow Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee (ENVI) members​, one of which said his "extremist"​ stance "blamed” ​women who could not or chose not to breastfeed. 

The research behind the concern

The researchers behind this latest paper said it was well established that infant nutrition could have a “programming effect”​ on human health in later life. 

These investigated health impacts have ranged from cholesterol, blood pressure and obesity risk to cognitive development. 

“Theory and research show that infant nutrition plays a major role in cognitive development in early childhood and that this effect continues at school age and has an impact on academic performance and productivity in later life,” ​they said.  

They cited a 1994 Lancet​ study on the neurological differences between nine-year-old children fed breast milk or formula as babies as well as a more recent 2002 study published in Public Health Nutrition​, which tracked the cognitive benefits of breastfeeding right up to middle age.


Source: British Journal of Nutrition

Published online ahead of print, doi:10.1017/S0007114515001233

“Economic impact of breast-feeding-associated improvements of childhood cognitive development, based on data from the ALSPAC”

Authors: N. Straub, P. Grunert, K. Northstone and P. Emmett

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