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Breast-Feeding Makes Baby Healthy and Wise

New study links it to slightly higher IQs

FRIDAY, March 22, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- For years, health-care professionals have been telling parents breast-feeding is best for babies.

Now, another study confirms that message.

Babies who are breast-fed exclusively for the first six months of life have a higher IQ at age 5 than those who are breast-fed for 12 weeks or less, according to the study, published in the current issue of the Swedish journal, Acta Paediatrica.

Researchers also found exclusive breast-feeding didn't slow babies' growth rates.

"The message here is since there is a lot to be gained by exclusive breast-feeding for six months, whenever possible, mothers should breast-feed children exclusively through this period," says one of the study's authors, Malla Rao, a staff scientist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The new study supports other research that has appeared in publications such as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the Archives of Disease in Childhood, which have also reported breast-feeding is associated with slight increases in IQ scores.

Rao and his colleagues studied data from more than 500 children born in Norway and Sweden. They selected those countries because both have a high rate of breast-feeding.

Ninety-eight percent of women in those nations start breast-feeding when their children are born, according to Rao. That compares to about 64 percent in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. At six months, between 50 percent and 65 percent of the women in Norway and Sweden are still breast-feeding, while only 29 percent of American women are.

Two hundred and twenty of the babies in the study were born small for their gestational age, which means they weighed six pounds or less at birth, and 299 were average for their gestational age. None of the babies were born prematurely.

The researchers evaluated the children at birth, 6 weeks, and then at 3, 6, 9 and 13 months of age, and again at 5 years of age. The mothers provided information on their babies' diets and whether they had supplemented breast milk with formula, baby cereal or other solid food. At 13 months and at 5 years of age, the children also were given age-appropriate intelligence tests.

At the six-month checkup, the researchers found supplementing breast milk with either formula or cereal did not make the babies grow any faster, though many mothers whose babies were born small believed it would and tended to use the supplements, Rao says.

Babies who were born small and then exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of life scored 11 points higher on the IQ tests when they were 5, compared to the infants who were exclusively breast-fed for 12 weeks or less.

In addition, average-sized babies who were breast-fed exclusively for six months had, on average, a three-point higher IQ than babies who were exclusively breast-fed for 12 weeks or less.

"This study supports the idea that breast-feeding is a benefit," says Ruth Kava, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health in New York City.

However, she adds, parents shouldn't take the results too literally.

"While breast-feeding is strongly recommended, formula feeding is second-best," she says.

Also, although she's not an expert in children's intelligence, Kava points out that even though an 11-point spread in IQ scores may seem statistically significant, it won't make a huge difference in the real world.

What To Do

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding your baby for at least the first 12 months, and says that for the first six months of life, breast milk alone provides ideal nutrition.

To learn more about the benefits of breast-feeding, visit the University of Michigan Health System, or read this information from La Leche League International.

SOURCES: Malla Rao, staff scientist, epidemiology branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.; Ruth Kava, R.D., Ph.D., director, nutrition, American Council on Science and Health, New York City; March 2002 Acta Paediatrica
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