Breastfeeding May Boost a Child's Brainpower, Study Shows


Adobe Stock

THURSDAY, May 26, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- Breastfeeding has long been thought to help boost a child's IQ, but other factors such as mom's education level and/or social standing could also be responsible for some of this benefit.

Now, a new study shows that babies who were breastfed for six months or longer scored higher on tests measuring verbal and spatial relations skills up until age 14 when compared with kids who weren't breastfed as babies. The results held after the researchers controlled for moms' education level and socioeconomic status.

"In certain countries, mothers from more socially advantaged backgrounds and mothers who score higher in cognitive tests are more likely to breastfeed their babies for longer, and it has been argued that the relationship between breastfeeding and cognitive development is due to these differences," said study lead author Reneé Pereyra-Elías. He is a researcher at the University of Oxford in England.

However, "after accounting for socioeconomic circumstances and maternal cognitive ability, longer breastfeeding durations are associated with higher cognitive scores in children, even until age 14," Pereyra-Elías added.

Breast milk contains polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients, which aid brain development, he said. "It also contains microRNAs, which are pieces of genetic code in charge of programming our brains to develop and function correctly," Pereyra-Elías said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, followed by continued breastfeeding as foods are introduced for one year or longer. Extended breastfeeding is associated with a long list of potential health benefits, including lower risk for infections and some diseases.

For the study, researchers followed more than 7,800 infants born in the United Kingdom from 2000 through 2002 until they turned 14. Twenty-three percent of infants were breastfed for six months or longer, and about 34% weren’t breastfed at all.

The kids took tests measuring verbal and spatial relations skills when they were 5, 7, 11 and 14. Scores on tests were higher among kids who were breastfed for longer, even when researchers adjusted for other factors.

Not all women can breastfeed, and this doesn't mean that their children will be at a disadvantage. "It is important to remember that the potential gains in cognitive ability among children breastfed for several months would be equivalent to just 2-3 IQ points in the usual IQ scale, in which the average is 100," Pereyra-Elías said.

This difference is more pronounced at a population level. "If a whole population, on average, increases their IQ by 2-3 points, we could see important differences," the researcher added.

The study is published in the May 25 issue of PLOS ONE.

Outside experts point out that there are other ways to help make sure your baby thrives.

Dr. Linda Dahl is an otolaryngologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

"There are many ways to bond with your baby. Breastfeeding is one of them," Dahl said. "If, for whatever reason, you can't give your baby breastmilk, that doesn't mean they will be less intelligent or struggle through life."

As a nurse in pediatric practice in Florida, Michelle Ferguson counsels new moms on how to best help their babies meet their milestones.

"If a woman can't breastfeed, I will suggest age- and stage- appropriate activities and close bonding since they don't get that much bonding when they are bottle-feeding," said Ferguson, also an assistant professor of nursing at Florida Atlantic University. What's more, infant formulas mimic the composition of breast milk so all babies can derive benefits associated with breastfeeding, she said.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics explains how breastfeeding benefits your baby’s immune system.

SOURCES: Reneé Pereyra-Elías, MSc, DPhil student and researcher, University of Oxford, England; Linda Dahl, MD, otolaryngologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Michelle Ferguson, DNP, MSN, assistant professor, nursing, Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton; PLOS ONE, May 25, 2022

Related Stories

No stories found.