A study finds that babies who are breastfed for longer are more thoughtful when they are teenagers.
A study of more than 7,800 British children examined those who drank their mother’s milk for less than two months, two to four months, four to six months or more than a year.
The researchers found that those who were breastfed for a longer period, over the age of one, performed better on vocabulary tests at age 14 compared to children who were not breastfed.
The study, conducted by experts from the University of Oxford, said the differences in scores were equivalent to three IQ points.
Meanwhile, children who were breastfed for four to six months performed better on a test of memory, reasoning, and spatial awareness, than children who were never breastfed, at ages seven and eleven.
Breastfeeding was associated with a “modest” increase in children’s intelligence even when their mothers’ intelligence and socioeconomic circumstances were taken into account.
The World Health Organization advises mothers to exclusively breastfeed their children for at least six months.
But only about 48 percent of British and 52 percent of American mothers breastfeed for this time period.
Study links breastfeeding with better cognitive scores in children years later (stored image)
What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
Any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial, but breastfeeding your baby for six months offers the most benefit to babies and mothers.
The benefits for newborns include:
- Reduces risk of infection, with fewer hospital visits as a result, diarrhea and vomiting, sudden infant death syndrome, obesity and cardiovascular disease in adulthood
- Reducing the rates of infections of the respiratory tract, ear, chest and intestines
- May reduce the chance of a child getting leukemia in childhood
The benefits for mothers are:
- Uterine Reduction: After the baby is born, the uterus will gradually reduce in size, but breastfeeding will help speed up this.
- Bonding with Newborns: Breastfeeding can help mothers strengthen bonds with their babies
- Protects health: reduces the risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, weak bones, diabetes and cardiovascular disease
Dr Renee Pereira Elias, who led the study from Oxford University’s Department of Population Health, said: ‘These findings should not be cause for concern for women who were not, or were not able to, breast-feeding, because of potential gains in IQ among breastfed babies. For several months compared to children who were not breastfed the equivalent of two to three points.
However, if children increase, on average, their IQ by about three points, we can see important differences.
“Therefore, it is important that women who wish to breastfeed are supported to do so.”
Breast milk contains polyunsaturated fatty acids and nutrients such as iron that help in the development of children’s brains.
Experts say it also causes children to have fewer injuries and illnesses, which may help their intelligence because they have fewer school days off.
The researchers looked at the relationship between breastfeeding duration and thinking skills in children from the UK’s Millennium Study, who were recruited as children between 2000 and 2002 and took cognitive tests at ages 5, 7, 11 and 14.
Of those in the study, nearly a third of the babies had never been breastfed, but 23% had been breastfed for at least six months.
The strongest association between breastfeeding and vocabulary skills was observed in 14-year-olds, who were given a list of 20 words, ranging from “unique” to “cowardly” and asked to choose the word with the most similar meaning from the list.
14-year-olds who had been breastfed for at least 12 months had a test result roughly three IQ points higher than teens of the same age who had never breastfed.
Children’s understanding of words on the simpler tests was also better, compared to children who had never been breastfed, for children aged seven to 11 who had been breastfed for four months or more.
Breastfeeding duration has not been linked to vocabulary at age five.
The researchers set out to ensure that the results were not driven by the mothers’ intelligence, and evaluated them using a vocabulary test, and the children’s socioeconomic status, based on their parents’ occupations and the mother’s education level.
Babies with more educated mothers, and those from wealthier families, tend to breastfeed for longer and may also benefit from tutoring, extra help with homework, or trips to zoos, museums, and galleries.
But even when this was taken into account, babies who were breastfed for longer did better on cognitive tests.
Babies who had been breastfed for four to six months, compared to those who had not been breastfed before, performed better at age seven on a spatial test asking them to fit colored squares in a figure, and slightly better at age five.
They also made fewer mistakes, at 11 years old, when they were asked to check the inner boxes on a computer screen for icons, and remember what they actually checked after they were covered.
These tests, which are only taken up to the age of 11, measure spatial awareness and problem-solving skills.
The study, published in the journal Plos ONE, concluded that breastfeeding for a longer period can boost children’s intelligence as much as they have an intelligent mother or come from a well-to-do family and “should not be underestimated”.