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Are breastfed children more intelligent?

Author: Stephanie Erdle, MedSchoolForParents.com Editor
Breastfeeding has many known health benefits in infancy, including the prevention of gastrointestinal tract infections, eczema and ear infections.  One potential benefit of breastfeeding that has been debated for years is that of intelligence.  So what’s the verdict?  Can someone give us an answer once and for all?  Are breastfed children more intelligent?
A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University, led by Dr. Mandy Belfort, sheds some light on this debate.  Dr. Belfort’s team analyzed 1,312 mothers and children to see the relationship between breastfeeding duration and child cognition at ages 3 and 7 years.  Children were measured on whether they were breastfed only, received mixed feeds, weaned, or were never breastfed.  A series of cognitive tests were then carried out at ages 3 and 7 years.  At 3 years, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test was used, which is a test that assesses receptive language.  At 7 years, the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test was performed, which is a test that assesses verbal and non-verbal intelligence (IQ).  The researchers took into account maternal factors that could impact the child’s IQ, such as maternal IQ, childcare, parental income and parental education.
Their results showed that breastfed babies were more likely to score higher on receptive language tests at age 3 and on intelligence tests at age 7.  Moreover, it wasn’t just whether or not breastfeeding took place. The beneficial effects of breastfeeding were cumulative -- the longer the babies were breastfed, the better they performed on the tests. 
“We found that overall, for each additional month of breastfeeding, the test scores at age 3 and age 7 were a little bit higher,” says Dr. Belfort in an interview for MedSchoolForParents.com.  Specifically, the children’s verbal test scores at age 3 were 0.21 point higher for each month they were breastfed.  The children’s IQ test scores at age 7 were 0.35 of an IQ point higher per month of breastfeeding.
Dr. Belfort, however, cautions that the differences in IQ on the individual level aren’t dramatic. “There are many women who want to continue to breastfeed, but have to go back to work and are unable to do so.  Our findings are not meant to make them feel guilty about going back to work.  The differences in IQ in terms of absolute numbers on the individual level were very small.  Rather, this is an important issue on the population and policy level.  These findings support policies that enable and support women to breastfeed for longer,” she suggests.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis echoes this notion in an editorial in the same journal, which accompanies the researchers’ study, calling for better opportunities for women to breastfeed for longer.  He suggests that the main issue is not that women aren’t initiating breastfeeding – most do.  Rather, the issue is that women are unable to sustain breastfeeding because of societal factors, such as returning to work and stigma towards breastfeeding in public.   
New parent Lindsay Crawford says these new findings will definitely influence her decision to breastfeed: “As a new parent, I want the best for my daughter.  Although I was planning to breastfeed to decrease the risk of certain infections in my daughter, knowing that it could also influence her intelligence is a bonus.”  She also echoes the concerns of Dr. Christakis: “After 4 months, I have to go back to work.  Hearing these findings definitely makes me consider pumping breast milk when that time comes.  I wish I had an option to go back to work and continue breastfeeding.”
So what is the final verdict ?
Top Tips for MedSchoolForParents.com new Parents : 
*   The American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, and continued breastfeeding until at least 12 months of age.
*    With 12 months of breastfeeding, your baby’s IQ might be 3 points higher than if you didn’t breastfeed at all. 
*    That being said, it is not all or nothing – every additional month counts.  All in all, it is something, but not a whole lot. 
*    The bigger issue is on the population and policy level, and the need for society to de-stigmatize breastfeeding in public, and for workplaces to provide better opportunities and spaces for women to breastfeed.
Further reading:
Updated  03/08/2017


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