A great deal of research suggests that breastfeeding makes babies less likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As a mother who also has ADHD, these studies have long intrigued me, especially since their findings don’t necessarily jibe with my own experience. I myself was breastfed consistently for 18 months, yet developed ADHD. So while today we’re going to explore these fascinating pieces of research in more detail, don’t worry if you can’t or don’t want to breastfeed. It’s not proven to prevent ADHD—and as we’ll see, your emotional needs are also of the utmost importance in matters of breastfeeding.
What does science say about ADHD and breastfeeding?
We know breastfeeding has a positive impact on child health and development, but in 2013 scientists from Tel Aviv University demonstrated that breastfeeding may also protect against ADHD, the most commonly diagnosed neurobehavioural disorder in children and adolescents.
The researchers retrospectively studied the breastfeeding habits of parents of three groups of children, ranging from 6 to 12 years old: those who had been diagnosed with ADHD, siblings of those with a diagnosis, and a control group with neither a diagnosis nor an affected sibling. The inclusion of the sibling group was unusual, but the scientists’ rationale was simple: mothers often make different breastfeeding decisions from one of their babies to the next. And some babies’ temperaments arguably make breastfeeding that much more difficult, too.
The study found a link between the rate of breastfeeding and the likelihood of developing ADHD. Children who were bottle-fed at three months were three times more likely to have ADHD than those who were breastfed during the same period. Furthermore, the parents provided medical and demographic data that might have been associated with their children’s ADHD development, including their child’s birth weight, problems during pregnancy such as diabetes and hypertension, and marital and education statuses. Yet even when they accounted for all these risk factors, the Tel Aviv scientists still found that children with ADHD were far less likely to have been breastfed during the first year of their life compared to the other two groups who were studied.
- At three months old, only 43% of the children with ADHD were being breastfed, compared to 69% of the sibling group and 73% of the control group.
- At six months old, 29% of the ADHD group were being breastfed, compared to 50% of the sibling group and 57% of the control group.
What are the implications if the ADHD connection is real?
No researchers know yet if breastfeeding definitely has a connection to the future development of ADHD, or why that would be the case were it true. It could be because breast milk itself has certain properties, or instead because breastfeeding galvanises a profound connection between mother and baby. A 2016 study found ‘further evidence of a positive association of breastfeeding with cognitive function apart from socioeconomic factors’, while researchers in 2014 potentially demonstrated ‘a protective effect of breastfeeding on childhood behavioural outcomes’.
Always keep in mind, though, the most important factor no matter what decision you make about breastfeeding: your mental health. You need the fortitude to withstand the emotions that ensue when you become a mother—because they can be tough enough as it is, even before you get into any kind of breastfeeding debate.So forget the stats that all too often bombard us and take us out of the moment. Do what feels right and healthy for you. You’re a better mum when you’re not under pressure, not exhausted, and when you afford yourself the luxury of some self-care and me time. Just as in an emergency on a plane you don your mask first so you can better help others, so you need to be in tip-top condition to ensure you’re mothering your little un to the absolute best of your abilities.