- Researchers report that breastfeeding duration is linked to improved cognitive skills in children.
- It’s the latest in a series of studies that associated breastfeeding with intelligence in children.
- Experts note that many mothers can’t or don’t choose to breastfeed, but they can still provide their infant with proper nutrients through infant formula.
Previous studies have reported similar results, but researchers in the current study say that more prolonged breastfeeding is associated with higher cognitive skills.
In the new study, scientists analyzed data collected from the UK Millennium Cohort Study on 7,855 infants born between 2000 and 2002 and followed them until age 14.
The data included:
- Duration of breastfeeding.
- Verbal cognitive scores at ages 5, 7, 11, and 14.
- Spatial cognitive scores at ages 5, 7, and 11.
- Socioeconomic characteristics.
- Maternal cognition based on a vocabulary test.
Longer breastfeeding duration was associated with higher verbal and spatial cognitive scores throughout the study. The mean cognitive scores were 0.08 to .26 higher than those of children never breastfed.
“The differences found in our study might seem ‘small’ in the cognitive ability of an individual child,” explained Dr. Renee Pereyra-Elias, a researcher at the University of Oxford in England and the lead author of the study.
“If we are speaking in terms of the usual IQ scale, which has an average of 100, the differences between children who were breastfed for several months and those never breastfed would be somewhere between 1.5 and 4.0 points,” he told Healthline. “While a difference of 2 to 3 IQ points may not seem like a big ‘gain’ for an individual child (for example going from 100 to 102), if a whole population, on average increases their IQ by 2 to 3 points, we could potentially see considerably important differences.”
When the scientists adjusted the results to factor in socioeconomics and maternal intelligence, modest associations remained.
Previous studies found similar results:
studypublished in 2021 reported that breastfed children had an average gain of 3.44 IQ points. This gain seemed to have a long-term impact, with the children having improved performance in tests and higher education.
- A study published in February 2022 looked at data on 111 healthy girls aged 7 to 9. Researchers compared three groups: exclusively breastfed, exclusively bottle-fed, and mixed-fed. The group of girls exclusively breastfed had more higher-than-average IQ scores than the other groups. The results, however, were not considered statistically significant, possibly because of the small sample size.
According to these organizations, breastfeeding helps decrease infections, allergies, and obesity.
Most women do choose breastfeeding, at least initially.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
“It is important to start the conversation about breastfeeding early in pregnancy,” says Dr. G. Thomas Ruiz, the OB/GYN lead at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
“I talk to them about the benefits, including that their babies will get key antibodies,” he told Healthline. “For example, we give the pertussis vaccine during pregnancy and the antibodies are passed to the baby through breastfeeding. COVID antibodies are also passed to the newborn when mothers receive that vaccine during pregnancy. We also have lactation consultants available to all new moms. Providing encouragement and support can increase the chance that the mother will follow through with breastfeeding.”
Breastfeeding, however, isn’t suitable for everyone.
“Multiple challenges can exist with breastfeeding, such as sore nipples, plugged ducts, poor bonding, exhaustion, and low milk supply,” says Dr. Kecia Gaither, MPH, FACOG, the director of perinatal services and maternal-fetal medicine at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln and an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.
Gaither told Healthline that women might choose formula/bottle feeding for several reasons.
- Work or school schedule doesn’t allow it.
- They are on chemotherapy or other medications which would be passed to the baby.
- They have had a mastectomy.
- They do not have familial or partner support.
- They have a health condition, such as HIV.
Experts say parents who don’t have the choice and those who choose bottles as a personal decision can still provide their babies with a healthy diet using commercial formula.
While the formula doesn’t offer antibodies against infection, it does give parents the convenience of having other people, including the other parent, the opportunity to feed the baby.
It also offers flexibility that makes other commitments, such as work, easier to manage.
With more than 40 percent of formula out of stock, some parents are driving hours to locate formula for their babies.
Some mothers are deciding to breastfeed because of the current formula shortage.
The shortage is the result of supply-chain issues and a recall of several brands, including Similac, Similac Alimentum, and EleCare.
Although the shortage might slightly increase breastfeeding, the obstacles are still there, according to an article in The New York Times.
Some women can’t breastfeed, and they face the increasing fear that they won’t find formula and won’t be able to feed their babies.
Breastfeeding is a personal decision that mothers take seriously. Some consider the pros and cons for weeks or months.
For others, the decision is made by factors outside of their control.