ADHD is thought to be hereditary; that means that it is passed from parent to child through genes. It would seem, therefore, that there wouldn’t be any way to prevent or reduce the chances that your child may develop ADHD. However, some studies show that breastfeeding may help prevent ADHD.
Breastfeeding provides optimal nutrition for babies - containing vitamins, protein and fat. It is more easily digested and contains antibodies to help fight viruses and infection. Children who are breastfed are less likely to develop allergies and asthma. They have fewer ear infections and respiratory illnesses than those fed with formula. It may lower the risk of diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer. It has also been linked to higher IQs.
In 2005, a study completed in Poland compared children between the ages of 4 and 11 years old with ADHD to children without ADHD. Researchers found that children with ADHD were breastfed for shorter durations that those without ADHD. The study concluded "The short duration of breastfeeding as environmental factor may be considered a risk factor of ADHD symptoms."  The scientists noted that further research was needed, however, to form firm conclusions about any link between not breastfeeding, or breastfeeding for shorter amounts of time, and ADHD.
This year (2013), two more studies were conducted:
- A study completed in Israel compared three different groups of children: 56 children with ADHD, 52 siblings without ADHD and 51 non-related children without ADHD. At three months, only 43 percent of the children with ADHD were breastfed. The other two groups were much higher: 69 percent for the siblings and 73 percent for the non-related group. At six months old, only 29 percent of those with ADHD were still being breast fed, while 50 percent of the siblings and 57 percent of the non-related children were still being breastfed.
- A second study, completed at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York found similar results. There study compared 54 preschoolers with ADHD to 54 preschoolers without ADHD. Researchers found that over one-half of children with ADHD were breastfed for one month or less while only one-fourth of the control group was breastfed for that short of a time. More than twice as many children without ADHD were breastfed for more than six months; 46 percent of non-ADHD children compared to only 22 percent of those with ADHD.
What the Studies Say
Without a doubt, all the studies showed that on average, children with ADHD were breastfed for shorter durations that those without ADHD. Scientists just aren’t sure what this means yet. Is it possible that breast milk has some properties that protect children against developing ADHD? Dr. Andrew Adesman, the lead author of the study completed in New York, speculates that it may be the fatty acids in breast milk that help prevent ADHD. Other studies have shown that using omega 3 fatty acids have helped to reduce some symptoms of ADHD. It is possible then, that children receiving fatty acids from birth on, through breast milk, are given some type of ability to fend off ADHD symptoms.
The researchers also wonder if breastfeeding provides some other benefit that we don’t yet understand that may help to prevent ADHD. But, it is also possible that children with ADHD are not breastfed as long because of ADHD symptoms - either the child’s or the mothers. Researchers point out that a child’s difficult temperament may make breastfeeding difficult or impossible or a mother’s ADHD may make her too impatient to breastfeed for long periods of time. More research is needed to sort out why children with ADHD are not breast fed as often or for as long.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children be breastfed exclusively for the first six months. That means no water, juice or food. After six months, they recommend introducing health foods in combination with breastfeeding and continuing to breastfeed for as long as the baby and mother are comfortable.
"AAP Reaffirms Breastfeeding Guidelines," 2012, Feb, 27, Staff Writer, American Academy of Pediatrics
"Breastfed Children Are Less Likely to Develop ADHD Later in Life, Study Suggests," 2013, July 22, Staff Writer, ScienceDaily
"Breastfeeding and ADHD: Could Nursing Be Protective," 2013, May 17, Catherine Pearson, Huffington Post
"Breastfeeding Fact Sheet," Updated 2012, July 16, Staff Writer, WomensHealth.gov
"The Duration of Breastfeeding and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder," 2005, H. Kadziela-Olech and J. Piotrowska-Jastrzebska, Department of Pediatrics and Developmental Disorders of Children and Adolescents, Childrens Hospital of Medical University of Bialystock, Rocz, Akad Med Bialymst
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.