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Can Breastfeeding Boost Your Baby's Brain Power?

by Vannessa Rhoades 15 May 2023
Can Breastfeeding Boost Your Baby's Brain Power?

For decades, doctors and parents have suspected that breastfeeding may boost a baby’s intelligence quotient (IQ). However, with a range of other influencing factors in the mix, it’s been a challenge to scientifically confirm this theory. Parents who wonder, “Will breastfeeding help my baby be smarter?” have never really gotten a clear-cut answer. Interestingly, a new study proves this hypothesis may be correct.

What the Research Says About Breastfeeding and IQ

While earlier research has indicated similar results, investigators in this new analysis report that an extended duration of breastfeeding is linked to increased cognitive abilities. For the new study, researchers examined data gathered from the UK Millennium Cohort Study on 7,855 infants born between 2000 and 2002 and followed them until age 14. The data included information about the children’s time span spent breastfeeding, verbal and spatial cognitive scores at various ages, socioeconomic markers, and maternal comprehension. The results clearly showed that prolonged breastfeeding was linked to higher verbal and spatial cognitive scores throughout the study. In fact, the average cognitive scores were 0.08 to .26 higher than those of children who were never breastfed. Even when researchers modified the results to accommodate socioeconomics and maternal IQ, a link still remained. This may seem like only a minimal improvement in regard to the intellectual abilities of an individual child, but the data could have a significant impact when extrapolated to a population level. 

“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,” explains Dr. Renee Pereyra-Elias, a researcher at the University of Oxford in England and the lead author of the study. “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.”

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Previous Studies About Breastfeeding and IQ

Earlier research regarding the connection between breastfeeding and a higher IQ has indicated similar outcomes:

  • A 2021 analysis noted that breastfed children had a mean increase of 3.44 IQ points. This increase appeared to have a long-term influence, with the children demonstrating enhanced performance on tests and in higher education.
  • Research from February 2022 analyzed data on 111 healthy girls aged 7 to 9. Investigators compared three groups: exclusively breastfed, exclusively bottle-fed, and mixed-fed. The children who had been exclusively breastfed had a greater number of higher-than-average IQ scores than the other groups. However, the outcomes of this study were not deemed statistically significant, conceivably due to the limited sample size.

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Choosing Whether or Not to Breastfeed

Numerous medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the World Health Organization (WHO), endorse breastfeeding as the optimal way to feed a baby and the best way to help reduce infection, allergies, and obesity. Most parents do start out breastfeeding. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 84% of mothers in 2017 chose to breastfeed initially. Six months later, only 58% were still breastfeeding.

Doctors say it’s important to initiate the conversation about breastfeeding early in a patient’s pregnancy. Providing parents with information about the benefits to their baby, like increased antibody protection, along with providing support and encouragement can improve the chances that parents will continue with prolonged breastfeeding.

That said, breastfeeding doesn’t work for everyone.

Nursing can be a challenge for many new parents. Many experience a variety of challenges, including sore nipples, clogged milk ducts, poor bonding, fatigue, and an inadequate milk supply. Parents may instead opt for bottle or formula feeding for a variety of reasons, including:

  • School or work schedule conflicts
  • Lack of partner or family support
  • Previous mastectomy
  • Having a health condition, like HIV
  • Taking chemotherapy or other pharmaceutical treatments that could be passed through breastmilk

Experts are also quick to point out that parents who don’t have the option and those who prefer to use bottles as a matter of choice can still supply their babies with a healthy, nutritious diet by utilizing commercially-made formula. Bottle feeding also has the added advantage of allowing other people, like a partner or family member, to have an opportunity to feed the baby.

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The Takeaway

Whether or not breastfeeding will boost your baby's IQ, it can still have many positive effects on their overall health and development. Breast milk contains a range of nutrients that are important for growth and development, and breastfeeding has also been linked to a reduced risk of certain illnesses and diseases later in life.

Ultimately, whether or not to breastfeed is a personal decision that should be based on a variety of factors, including the mother's health and well-being, the baby's needs, and individual circumstances. It's important to consult with a healthcare provider for advice and guidance on the best feeding options for you and your baby.

Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions or concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your healthcare provider.

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