February 27, 2014
Why Are Breastfed Babies So Smart?
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Over the years, many studies have shown that breastfed children score higher on IQ tests, and perform better in school. None of those studies, however, has been able to show why this is true.
Theories seeking to explain why this is true include the mother-baby bonding time, something in the milk itself, and some unseen attribute of mothers who breastfeed their babies.
A new study from Brigham Young's sociologists, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, pinpoints two parenting skills as the source of this cognitive boost. The first is responding to children's emotional cues, and the second is reading to children starting at 9 months of age. Ben Gibbs, BYU assistant professor of sociology, said that breastfeeding mothers tend to do both of these things.
“It’s really the parenting that makes the difference,” said Gibbs. “Breastfeeding matters in others ways, but this actually gives us a better mechanism and can shape our confidence about interventions that promote school readiness.”
Gibbs collaborated with Renata Forste, BYU professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neurosciences, on the study. Their analysis revealed that improvements in sensitivity to emotional cues and time reading to children could result in 2-3 months' worth of brain development by age 4. This brain development is measured by math and reading readiness assessments.
“Because these are four-year-olds, a month or two represents a non-trivial chunk of time," Gibbs said. “And if a child is on the edge of needing special education, even a small boost across some eligibility line could shape a child’s educational trajectory.”
A national dataset that followed 7,500 mothers and their children from birth to age five was used by the research team. The data included information on the home environment, including how early and often parents read to their children. The researchers measured the mother's supportiveness and sensitivity to their child's emotional cue using video-taped activities where the child tried to complete a challenging task.
Sandra Jacobson, child development expert at Wayne State University School of Medicine, praised the study, noting that children in the study who were breastfed for six months or longer performed the best on reading assessments because they also “experienced the most optimal parenting practices."
“Gibbs and Forste found that reading to an infant every day as early as age 9 months and sensitivity to the child's cues during social interactions, rather than breastfeeding per se, were significant predictors of reading readiness at age 4 years,” wrote Jacobson.
The BYU team suggests that the most at-risk children are also the least likely to be given optimal parenting in early childhood. Working single mothers, for example, don't have the same luxuries when it comes to breastfeeding and quality time with the children. Parents with lower education levels do not always hear about research-based parenting practices, either.
“This is the luxury of the advantaged,” Forste said. “It makes it harder to think about how we promote environments for disadvantaged homes. These things can be learned and they really matter. And being sensitive to kids and reading to kids doesn’t have to be done just by the mother.”