Breastfeeding: Better brains

Breastfeeding: Better brains

Dr. Stan (Stan Cohen MD)

Is a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children’s Center for Digestive Health Care / GI Care for Kids, whose books on nutrition for parents led him to start Nutrition4Kids with his co-founders.

Breast milk is considered the best source of nutrition for children under the age of one. While breastfeeding  has been linked to many health advantages for a baby, the claims about improved brain development and function are not agreed upon. 

Some research has associated breastfeeding with higher IQs, but the studies were often dismissed due to other  social, cultural and occupational differences that could affect a developing child's IQ. It was unclear whether breastfeeding alone made a child smarter, or if having access to more resources affected a child's intelligence more. In other words, is it the nutrients in breastmilk that makes a child smarter, or their parents being able to hire a private tutor? 

In New Zealand, researchers were able to compare the performance of 1000 children who came from the same community. They found that even when the children had similar resources available, the children who were breastfed performed better.  Similarly, a French study  (Bernard and others, J Pediatrics July 2013) tracked the intellectual performance of 1199 children to 3 years of age. The study found that infants who breastfed for even a brief period scored 3.7 points higher in their language ability at 2 years of age. Additionally, their developmental abilities were 6.2 points higher at 3 years of age when compared to never-breastfed infants. The mothers' education, income, and smoking status, did not affect the results. That doesn't sound like a lot, but those points mean better brains. And those points add up, with an increase for every month of breastfeeding.

BOTTOM LINE: Breastfeeding may improve a child's brain development compared to children who are not breastfed; however, more research is needed. Most importantly, breastmilk is still an essential part of an infant's nutrition. If you are not able to breastfeed, formulas with higher DHA levels provide one of the key nutrients important in the developing brain. Remember too that brain development continues through  2 years of age so offer fish and eggs supplemented with DHA or toddler formula that has DHA  available for brain growth. And of course, whether you breast or bottle feed, frequent activities with your growing infants and children will stimulate their intellectual and emotional development.

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