When you look up the benefits of breast milk, you will find no shortage of “Breast Is Best’’ articles stressing the positives of the healthiest natural milk option for infants. Breast milk has antibodies that help babies fight off viruses and bacteria. It also lowers babies’ risk of having allergies and asthma. Plus, babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life have far less respiratory illnesses and ear infections.
Several studies over the years have found that breastfed children do better on intelligence tests. The validity of these findings has recently been challenged because key factors associated with a mother’s choice to breastfeed were not taken into consideration. Therefore, the question is: Are breast fed children smarter? Or do mothers who choose to breastfeed have smart children?
To respond to this question, research published in the journal Pediatrics indicates that infants who are breastfed do not have better cognitive skills, by the time they enter kindergarten, than those who were not breastfed.
For nine months the researchers followed approximately 9,800 children from nine months to five years of age. The mothers reported if they breastfed their children and for how long. Next, the mothers completed questionnaires about their children’s behaviors, vocabulary and cognitive abilities at the ages of three and five years. Teachers’ reports on their behaviors and standardized tests were also used to assess the children’s skills.
Initially, breastfeeding was associated with better cognitive development. However, then the researchers applied a statistical analysis technique called “propensity score matching,” which attempts to, in this case, account for the factors that determine whether mothers choose to breastfeed. For instance, several studies show:
- Low socioeconomic status women are less likely to breastfeed than those of higher status.
- Women who breastfeed tend to have higher academic achievements.
- Roughly 25% of women who breastfeed have a smoker residing with them during pregnancy compared to 42% of those who do not breastfeed.
- The more children in the home, the less often breastfeeding takes place.
Therefore, it should be no surprise to learn that, unadjusted, breastfed children were better at problem solving, had a higher vocabulary and were much better behaved. But, once the children were matched on those baseline variables, those relationships went out the window.
What’s interesting is that when the researchers looked at mothers who breastfed for over six months, they found that there was reduced hyperactivity in the children at age 3. However, it stopped at age five.
While the study questions the cognitive benefits of breast milk, as mentioned there are still plenty of real health benefits that come with breast feeding, including forming a unique bond between mom and baby. And so, new moms are always advised to breastfeed for the first six months after birth when possible, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.