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New Study Links Breastfeeding to Higher IQ's

Katlyn Joy | 2, August 2013


A new study published in Pediatrics has shown a strong link between breastfeeding and IQ. This study from researchers at Harvard University and Boston Children's Hospital looked at data from over 1300 babies whose mothers breastfed them for a minimum of six months.

The vocabulary of the children were analyzed at ages 3 and then their IQ was tested at age 7. The results showed an increase of one-fifth of a point for each month breastfed for the 3 year olds, and one-third of an IQ point for each month breastfed at 7 years old.

This means that a child breastfed for a year could gain 4 whole IQ points. While studies have pointed at the same conclusions for twenty years or more, this study went further in making certain the link between breastfeeding and IQ were not just circumstantial but causal.

This study adjusted for income, education and mother's intelligence. They even took into account when and for how long the children were in daycare.

A 2010 study published in Pediatrics linked duration of breastfeeding with higher IQ scores. This study was led by Wendy Oddy and consisted of an Australian research team.

Another aspect of many research studies is what the specific mechanism that is responsible for higher IQ's. Some have focused on DHA. This is the fatty acid in breast milk that is known to accumulate in the brain before birth and during infancy. Many formula manufacturers added the nutrient to formula since studies linked the substance to higher cognitive functioning. Later studies have not conclusively linked later IQ to DHA however.

However one study did find a possible reason for varying results regarding DHA and IQ. This study published in 2007, out of Kings College in London and Duke University, found that in children with a particular gene, FADS2, breastfeeding raised IQ's by 7 points. Those without that particular gene however, did not see an IQ spike with breastfeeding.

Other studies have looked in other directions for the reasons that IQ may get a bump from breastfeeding. According to Tonse Raju, pediatrician and neonatologist with the National Institute of Child Health Human Development, "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." The researcher asserts that it is the bonding and interaction between the mother and child during feeding that nurtures a child's intelligence and cognitive abilities.

Raju goes on to say, "How a baby is fed versus what it is fed is an important factor that has been overlooked in many studies. 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."

This means that should a mother be unable to provide human milk for feeding, she should not despair that all is lost. She can work to provide that human interaction in feeding that can be absent in bottlefeeding. It may not be the substance of breastmilk alone that raises IQ but the experience of interaction between mother and child that occurs naturally during breastfeeding.

The outcome of all the studies indicate that breastfeeding your baby has many benefits beyond intelligence. Those include protecting baby from viral and bacterial infections, as well as reducing the odds of SIDS and obesity for children later in childhood and adolescence.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization both recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months of life and continuing to breastfeed until baby's first birthday.

Katlyn Joy is a mother to 7 children, and a freelance writer. She earned her Master of Arts in Creative Writing and Poetry, and a Bachelor of Arts in English and was previously an adviser to new mothers on breastfeeding through a maternity home program. She currently resides in Colorado with her family.

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