Stress is a condition of life, with many resources dedicated to helping adults manage its disagreeable effects. But what about the younger set? When children face adult-sized worries, what helps them keep their anxiety under control?

One surprising stress reliever may begin a few minutes after birth. Animal studies suggest that breastfeeding enhances the ability to cope with stress. It is unclear what aspect of breastfeeding may lead to less anxious children, but it is likely a variety of factors, including mother-child bonding and family characteristics.

To test their theory that breastfed children are better able to manage stress then their bottle-fed peers, Swedish researchers focused on how 10-year-olds responded to one of most difficult situations they can face—parental separation or divorce. A comparison of anxiety levels between these groups of children showed that breastfeeding was associated with greater resilience to stress due to separation or divorce. These findings were published online August 2, 2006 in the Archives of Disease in Childhood .

About the Study

Using data collected during the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS 70), Swedish researchers looked for links between breastfeeding and anxiety in 8,958 children. The ongoing BCS 70 monitors the health and development of people born in Great Britain in April 1970. Parents were queried about breastfeeding practices (in 1975) and parental separation or divorce (in 1980). Also in 1980, the children’s teachers assessed each child’s degree of anxiety. Researchers looked for associations between breastfeeding, marital discord, and anxiety level.

Among children who were dealing with parental divorce or separation at age ten, those who had not been breastfed during infancy were significantly more anxious than those who were breastfed. A 7% decrease in anxiety level was linked to breastfeeding. These findings were still significant after researchers controlled for factors known to foster anxiety.

This study relied on just one measure of childhood anxiety—a teacher’s evaluation. While a teacher will likely provide a more objective assessment of anxiety related to family issues than a parent can, it is still a single measure that may or may not be reliable.

How Does This Affect You?

In this group of children, breastfeeding was associated with less anxiety in response to the stress of parental discord. Such an association does not prove that breastfeeding causes less anxiety, only that the two factors occurred together. Breastfeeding could be a marker for something unmeasured. For example, the act of breastfeeding lowers a woman’s stress response; this benefit may be passed directly to the infant through the process of breastfeeding or may indirectly enhance mother-child bonding by lowering the risk of postpartum depression . Enhanced mother-child bonding is also associated with lower anxiety in a child, but this can certainly be fostered during bottle-feeding as well. 

Regardless of the reason for the association seen here, there are many proven benefits—both physical and psychological—of breastfeeding. New mothers are encouraged to breastfeed for as long as they can. In this study, the duration of breastfeeding didn’t affect the strength of the association.

Many resources are available to help children of all ages deal with anxiety; see the Iowa University Extension website for guidelines on identifying and managing stress in children ( ).