While physicians have known that breast-fed infants have lower rates of hospital admissions, ear infections, diarrhea, rashes, allergies, and other medical problems than bottle-fed babies, new research suggests human milk also helps children deal with life’s stressful situations.

The new study indicates that babies who were breast fed are better able to deal with stress later on in life than babies who were bottle fed, say researchers from the Karolinska Institute, Sweden, and University College London, United Kingdom.

After looking at data on 8958 children aged 10, the researchers found that those who had been breast fed dealt with stressful periods in life, such as divorce or the separation of their parents, much better than those who had been bottle fed as babies.

The researchers say the close physical contact between baby and mother that comes with breast feeding probably plays in important role in this.

You can read about this study in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

The researchers interviewed parents and gave teachers questionnaires. The teachers were asked to give each child an anxiety score of 0 to 50, the higher the number the higher the child’s level of anxiety. Parents gave information on major unpleasant family events, such as divorce or separation – which took place when their child was 5-10 years old.

Several factors which could influence stress were also factored in, such as the mother having depression, parents’ academic levels, socio-economic status and smoking. Despite these factors, children who were breast fed as babies were much better able to cope with stress than those who were bottle fed.

Previous studies on animals have shown that during the first few days of a baby’s life, suckling (breastfeeding) triggers the development of brain pathways, which are crucial in stress management later on.

Breast feeding is closely linked to many health benefits, both for the mother and the child. Breast fed children are less likely to suffer from asthma and/or eczema during childhood and obesity later on in life.

Whether or not it is the act of breast feeding and the comforting sensation this gives to the newborn which makes him/her better able to cope with stress later on, or whether it may be due to some ingredient in breast milk, remains to be seen.

The World Health Organization says a mother should try to breast feed her baby for at least the first six months.

Source: Archives of Disease in Childhood