Arch Dis Child doi:10.1136/archdischild-2012-303199
  • Original article

Breast feeding and intergenerational social mobility: what are the mechanisms?

Open AccessPress Release
  1. M Bartley1
  1. 1Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, Colchester, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Amanda Sacker, Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, 1-19 Torrington Place, London WC1E 6BT, UK; a.sacker{at}
  • Received 12 October 2012
  • Revised 25 March 2013
  • Accepted 25 March 2013
  • Published Online First 24 June 2013


Objective To investigate the association between breast feeding and intergenerational social mobility and the possible mediating role of neurological and stress mechanisms.

Design Secondary analysis of data from the 1958 and the 1970 British Cohort Studies.

Setting Longitudinal study of individuals born in Britain during 1 week in 1958 and 1970.

Participants 17 419 individuals participated in the 1958 cohort and 16 771 in the 1970 cohort. The effect of breast feeding on intergenerational social mobility from age 10/11 to age 33/34 was analysed after multiple imputations to fill in missing data and propensity score matching on a wide range of confounders measured in childhood (1958 cohort N=16 039–16 154; 1970 cohort N=16 255–16 361).

Main outcome measures Own Registrar General's Social Class (RGSC) at 33/34 years adjusted for father's RGSC at 10/11 years, gender and their interaction.

Results Breastfed individuals were more likely to be upwardly mobile (1958 cohort: OR 1.24 95% CI 1.12 to 1.38; 1970 cohort: OR 1.24 95% CI 1.12 to 1.37) and less likely to be downwardly mobile (1958 cohort: OR 0.81 95% CI 0.73 to 0.90; 1970 cohort: OR 0.79 95% CI 0.71 to 0.88). In an ordinal regression model, markers of neurological development (cognitive test scores) and stress (emotional stress scores) accounted for approximately 36% of the relationship between breast feeding and social mobility.

Conclusions Breast feeding increased the odds of upward social mobility and decreased the odds of downward mobility. Consistent with a causal explanation, the findings were robust to matching on a large number of observable variables and effect sizes were alike for two cohorts with different social distributions of breast feeding. The effect was mediated in part through neurological and stress mechanisms.

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