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Girls Who Weren’t Breastfed Get Pregnant Younger

By Heather Turgeon |

Early stress, early pregnancy?

A long term study published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that certain factors in early childhood affect when a woman is likely to get pregnant for the first time later in life.

The scientists used data from the National Child Development Study, which has an ongoing group of people who have been tracked since they were between 3 and 9 years old.

Decades later, they found that four factors moved the date at which the women had their first babies forward — not being breastfed, having parents who were not as involved in her upbringing, having an absent father, and moving houses frequently.

The effect held up after factoring in education and socioeconomic status.

What’s going on here?

The researchers think that early stress can make small changes to a girl’s reproductive biology. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this idea — remember a few months ago, studies showing girls from middle class homes in which father wasn’t present, or with working moms were more likely to go into puberty early?

The evolutionary explanation: if early life is stressful, it signals to the person, way back in their “old brain” that they should get out there an make babies because the window may be limited (they might not live as long, for example).

I buy the overall theory, but I don’t think any of us has to worry about the particulars. Not being breastfed is not inherently more stressful to a child — my guess is that it’s confounded by other related variables. Unfortunately you can’t isolate breastfeeding from the rest of the picture for a study like this.

As for the rest of it, sure, stress affects our kids. But remember, it’s not the events in our child’s life that matter as much as how we handle them. So while moving or being a single parent might overall contribute to stress in the house, every family handles this differently and it’s far from being the be-all-end-all.

Each “factor” bumped up the age of first pregnancy by about 6 months — significant but not drastic.

Our goal isn’t to eliminate stress in our kids lives (impossible). So don’t cancel your move just yet.

image: flickr/pink sherbet

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About Heather Turgeon


Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Girls Who Weren’t Breastfed Get Pregnant Younger

  1. Gretchen Powers says:

    “Not being breastfed is not inherently more stressful to a child…” Really? What makes you so sure?

  2. PlumbLucky says:

    Not sure we CAN be sure one way or another…but I’d dare say that many of the reasons WHY a baby wouldn’t be breastfed would also lead to stress in a child’s life (reasons listed, for example).

  3. JesBelle says:

    Girls who lack attention and affection at home go out and seek sex and/or babies. Stop the presses.

  4. jenny tries too hard says:

    Plumb Lucky is right of course, a mom who is depressed is unlikely to breastfeed, for example. But we should also remember that we’re not talking about teenage pregnancies here. The average age to have your first child in the UK is 25, and this study found that having all four disruptions moved the age forward by two years. A young woman having her first baby at 23 isn’t exactly a teenager looking for love that mommy didn’t give her; she may well be married and done with college at that age!

  5. heatherturgeon says:

    I agree, PlumbLucky – stress factors might make a mom less likely to breastfeed AND cause the shift in reproductive biology. So stress is the issue, not the lack of breastfeeding itself.

  6. Rowan says:

    I find this a very interesting article. As someone who grew up with a VERY stressful first 3 years or so of my life (not breast fed, almost dying a few times due to cardiac arrest, as well as open heart surgery) I’m 25, and I currently have no children, and zero pregnancies. I also am not in any kind of relationship. (I’m on this site for work related reasons and had to add my 2 cents :) ) but then again, I have almost always been the exception to the “rule”.

  7. Piggeldy says:

    I grew up in a middle-class household, raised by a working mother who was also a single parent. I was never breastfed.

    I am 32, happily married,childless (by choice) and have never been pregnant. It’s a miracle ;)

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