Breastfeeding Boosts IQ
July 30, 2013

Prolonged Breastfeeding Boosts Baby’s IQ

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Doctors have been espousing the benefits of breastfeeding for years, and a new study in JAMA Pediatrics has found further evidence breastfeeding can boost babies' intelligence.

While previous studies have made a similar connection, experts said the new study took steps to account for the mother's IQ and the child's upbringing, which other studies have failed to do as comprehensively.

Based on the latest study's results, breastfeeding advocates can add potential IQ benefits to the list of other benefits that include boosting gastrointestinal health and reducing the risk of diabetes for both nursing mothers and their babies.

"It adds to the literature in support of the idea that breast-feeding does positively impact a child's intelligence," lead author Mandy Belfort, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, told USA Today. "I don't think there's any one study that's going to be a complete slam dunk, but it's definitely evidence in support of that idea."

In the study, researchers tracked over 1,300 babies and mothers from 1999 to 2010. They looked to see how many children were still nursing after one year and then assessed the children's intelligence at 3 and 7 years old using standardized tests.

The scientists found children who were still breastfeeding after one year had higher language recognition scores at age 3 than their peers who had switched to baby formula. The breastfeeding group also scored higher on both verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests at age 7.

The research team also looked at the amount of fish in nursing mothers' diet - to assess any potential impact of omega-3 on the cognitive development of their babies. The scientists found some evidence of positive effects of omega-3s, but not enough to be statistically significant.

"We found a little hint in that direction, but nothing definitive," Belfort said. "And we certainly didn't find any evidence that eating fish while breast-feeding was harmful, which is important because there are some concerns about mercury in fish being toxic to the developing brain."

A recent 30-year study published in the journal Epidemiology also found low levels of mercury exposure in expecting mothers due to eating fish was not linked to the development of autism.

In an accompanying editorial also published in JAMA Pediatrics, Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute and leader of Global Breast-feeding Initiative, said the new study should essentially confirm the cognitive benefits of breastfeeding and society should better accommodate nursing moms. 

Almost every set of national and international guidelines promote nursing for the first 6 months of a child's life and then both breast milk and solid food throughout the first year. For the study, Belfort said, "We made no recommendations about what (mothers) should do or how long they should breast-feed. We just observed how long and how much, and then looked at how that related to the child's later intelligence."

Belfort pointed out the cognitive differences between children found by the study "are not something a parent or teacher would discern in a child," but are still statistically significant from a public health standpoint.

"It's important to realize that there are many things parents can do to optimize their child's development, and one of them is provide them breast milk," Belfort said.