The Age Old Question ~ Are Breastfed Babies Smarter?

by in Parenting

The benefits of breastfeeding have been noted for years.  Not only does your milk provide the perfect nutrition for your baby, but it offers many health benefits for both mother and baby. Now, a new study is looking to prove that breastfed babies have an academic edge.  Apart from giving their child a healthier immune system and a fit life, moms who breastfeed their babies at least for six months may also be setting them up to have a ‘quantitative difference in intelligence’. The reason though is not just the milk but the bond formed with the mother.

A seven year research completed by Jagiellonian University Medical College in Poland for the European Journal of Pediatrics shows that children who were breastfed for the full first six months of their lives had a 3.8 points IQ margin over those who were breastfed for under six months. The study was conducted on preschoolers.

The interesting conclusion of the study was that the child’s intelligence varied with the duration of month’s they were breastfed. For those breastfed six months of more, the points were 3.8. For those breastfed between four to six months the points dropped to 2.6 or higher and those breastfed for three months the points were 2.1 or higher.

For the study Medical epidemiologist Wieslaw Jedrychowski and colleagues tracked 468 babies that were born to non-smoking mothers, and tested them each five times at regular intervals from their birth till preschool.

The data showed that cognitive abilities of the infants who were breastfed were much higher than those who were bottle fed.

The more important inference was that when it comes to brain development, the missing ingredient in the milk was not the chemicals or nutrients present but the bond with the mother.

Tonse Raju, a neonatal specialist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development said, “Sometimes even the most obvious facts need to be reiterated,” he wrote. “An infant suckling at his or her mother’s breast is not simply receiving a meal, but is intensely engaged in a dynamic, bidirectional, biological dialogue.”

It is the physical and psychological bonding and interaction between infant and mother during breast-feeding that nurtures development of an infant’s cognitive abilities.

“I believe the IQ effect may in part be explained by this dynamic interaction between mother and child in the breast-feeding process,” added Jedrychowski.

Even the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life.  Thereafter infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond. This benefits both the mother and the child in fighting long-term illnesses.

In past research has proved that the baby’s brain weight nearly doubles in its first year of life. This is mainly because of the increase in white matter of the brain responsible for insulation of the nerve fibres and thereby increasing their capability to transmit information faster. New research proves that it is early childhood environment that influences this process rather than a genetic trait.

Martin Teicher, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School says that his current research suggests that parental verbal affection is the most important factor affecting IQ early in life. Likewise, agression and tension in these early days has a counter affect on white matter development.

Donna Ferriero, professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital, agrees,

“Certainly there is substantial preclinical and clinical literature arguing that early life stress negatively impacts brain development and future social and cognitive interactions,” she says. “Conversely, there are data showing that environmental enrichment can reverse adverse effects of early brain injury.”

Because a bottle cannot provide the same interaction to the baby as mom’s breast the experience that helps brain growth is diminished.

“It is difficult to separate the nutritional and behavioral benefits of breast-feeding from epidemiologic data alone,” Jedrychowski notes

Raju says that till now stress has been given on what a child is fed and little has been done on the method in which he is fed, even in scientific researches.

How a baby is fed versus what it is fed is an important factor that has been overlooked in many studies,” Raju says. “Suckling at the breast results in changes in the mother’s brain—increased blood flow and oxytocin release [a hormone promoting bonding between mother and infant], and probably in the baby’s brain.”

The researcher also adds that mothers who pump their milk and bottle feed their babies, should atleast breastfeed directly at night or after they come back from work.

Also, for moms who have difficulty breastfeeding because the quantity is not sufficient, the research shows that it is not only the milk but the interaction too which is important. Therefore, moms can easily build the bond with their baby even if they can’t feed.

Take care not to “overlook the obvious,” and work to provide the ingredient that is missing in a baby bottle the researcher says.

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About the Author

Atula is a writer, traveler and a nature-lover. She is also mom to a boy who seems to have inherited all her creative genes. When Atula is not busy making up stories with her son, she writes for numerous magazines, websites and blogs. She is also working on her site on endangered species called

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