New study will look at effects of breastfeeding on children, mothers and employers

A team of researchers at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex has been awarded funding to carry out the most comprehensive study of its kind on breastfeeding.

The £240,000 project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), will examine the effects of breastfeeding not just on children, but also on mothers and employers.

Led by a team of researchers at ISER including Emilia Del Bono, Maria Iacovou and Birgitta Rabe, with the collaboration of Almudena Sevilla-Sanz at Oxford, the research will explore the relationship between breastfeeding and a child's early development including early literacy and numeracy skills at Key Stages 1 and 2. It will also examine whether there are links between breastfeeding and a child's social development by examining areas such as hyperactivity and peer problems.

The study will look to see if there is any link between breastfeeding and the health of mothers, for example in areas such as post natal depression. It will also explore the impact of family-friendly working practices on breastfeeding duration and the mothers' decisions to return to work.

Using two major data sets involving some 15,000 children each, the ISER team believes this will be the most comprehensive and one of the most ambitious pieces of research ever undertaken into the effects of breastfeeding. The analysis will be conducted using a range of economic and statistical techniques apt to disentangle the true effect of breastfeeding from other spurious associations.

Emilia Del Bono, who is leading the research team, said: "This is a fantastic opportunity to take a fresh look at breastfeeding and to expand the range of questions being asked about its effects. We believe this study will make a significant contribution to the research already undertaken in this area and that it will be of considerable interest to a wide range of professionals and policy makers as well as employers and the general public."

The World Health Organisation currently recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and the continuation of breastfeeding alongside solid foods for two years. Despite this and changes in policy and various initiatives aimed at women from disadvantaged groups, breastfeeding rates in many developed countries remain low. In the UK only 76% of mothers breastfeed initially, and more than a third of them stops by 6 weeks.

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