By: CHIOMA UMEHA
Infants who were breastfed as infants scored higher on intelligence tests than formula-fed kids, and the longer and more exclusively they were breastfed, the greater the difference, said Harvard University researchers in a study published Wednesday in JAMA Pediatrics.
This study added “to the body of literature of the association between duration of breastfeeding and cognition,” said NBC news diet and health editor Madelyn Fernstrom. But does breastfeeding make your child smarter? Fernstrom said this study showed an association, not cause and effect. The researchers analyzed 1,312 expectant mothers enrolled between 1999 and 2002 in Project Viva, a study in eastern Massachusetts examining pregnancy and child health, and the children they delivered. The researchers found that seven-year-olds whose mothers had done any breastfeeding during the child’s first year – exclusively or in combination with formula – gained a little more than a third of a point in verbal IQ for each month of breastfeeding compared to children who were never breastfed.
That means if the mother did any mix of breastfeeding for the entire 12 months, the gain would be 4.2 verbal IQ points. The association between breastfeeding and intelligence was stronger when researchers broke out children whose mothers exclusively breastfed during the first six months. Those seven -years-olds showed an increase of four-fifths of a point in verbal IQ each month over children who were never breastfed. That translates into a 4.8 point gain in verbal IQ if exclusively breastfed during their entire first six months of life. The results were similar although smaller in magnitude for non-verbal IQ. Georgieff praised the study’s design. There is really good evidence that breastfeeding reduces ear infections, diarrhoea and eczema in infants, he said.
The Harvard study, unlike most past studies, controlled for these and other variables, including the mother’s intelligence, education level, and any postpartum depression; family income and home environment; and the child’s race, ethnicity, sex and birth weight. “As a result, we felt we were able to get a reasonable estimate of what the relationship is between the length of breastfeeding and the IQ of the child at school age,” said Dr. Mandy Belfort, lead author and assistant professor of paediatrics at Harvard Medical School. The study results show that “exclusive breastfeeding is becoming more and more important,” said physicist Sean Deoni, head of Brown University’s Advanced Baby Imaging Lab and lead author of a recent brain imaging study that linked exclusive breastfeeding to enhanced brain development in children. Belfort said researchers do not know for sure why breast milk may increase cognition.
“All the nutrients we know that are important for infants are also in formula, but there may be others that we don’t know about yet that are responsible” for this small but significant effect. For example, beneficial fatty acids found in breast milk have been routinely added to formula in the United States since about 2002. But a class of carbohydrates called oligosaccharides found in breast milk and thought to be beneficial to a baby’s health and brain development is not yet found in formula, said Georgieff. In addition, it is difficult to make cow’s milk mimic human milk because “you just never get the entire matrix right – all the proteins and fats and all the live cells that are in there,” said Georgieff. “We are only starting to learn now what all those things are and how they work together.”
The findings support the current breastfeeding recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics: Babies should be exclusively breastfed for about the first six months of life, meaning no additional foods or fluids unless medically indicated. Babies should continue to breastfeed for a year and for as long as mother and baby desire, says the academy. Also, The World Health Organization’s (WHO) facts on breastfeeding stipulates that breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival.
This story was published in Newswatch Times on August 3, 2013.