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Can breastfeeding make your baby smarter?

New research suggests that babies, especially boys, who are breastfed for at least six months may have higher academic test scores down the road.

A study, released Monday, of more than 2,000 10-year-olds found boys who were mainly breastfed had higher math and reading scores than those who were not. There was a small but not statistically significant edge in girls’ reading scores. The research appears in the journal Pediatrics.

The study is the boost for breastfeeding advocates. Among them are the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s leading pediatricians group, which recommends that mothers breastfeed for at least six months.

Breastfeeding is known to lower babies’ risks of stomach viruses, respiratory problems, ear infections and other illnesses by providing certain protective and immune-boosting factors.

Dr. Anjali Rao, a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, called it a “‘grain-of-salt’ study.”

“[The results] are encouraging and go in line with everything else we already know about breastfeeding, in that it’s good for kids,” she says. “But there are a lot of medical or social reasons that some women cannot [breastfeed], and I would hate to make those women feel unnecessarily guilt about their situation.

“We should encourage and support [exclusive breastfeeding], but we should also support women inthose situations where it’s just not possible.”

The first six months are busy ones in babies’ brains, as neurons develop the coatings that help them interact and transmit information. Those coatings, called myelin sheaths, are made of fatty acids – just like the ones breast milk is loaded with.

Educational and socioeconomic factors play a role in kids’ test scores as well. Looking at books or being read to between the ages of 3 and 5 increased kids’ scores, while kids who grew up in poorer homes, or who were raised by mothers with only a high-school diploma or less, had lower scores.

But among women who cannot or choose not to breastfeed, other factors might be at work, Rao says. For example, single women or women in unstable relationships, or women who must return to work soon after delivery breastfeed at lower rates, and it’s not hard to see how those factors might translate into academic struggles for their kids.

She says she tells her patients to “do the best they can for as long as they can. If they have to supplement every day of their baby’s life, that’s OK. If they can exclusively breastfeed for 6 months or longer, thats great.

“But cognitive development is a multi-factoral process and as long as they are attentive to their child and encouraging their child to grow, I think that can overcome the lack of exclusive breastfeeding.”

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