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Babies who are breastfed for 12 months or longer develop better thinking skills, study finds

The results were not affected by the mother’s cognitive abilities or socioeconomic status

Saman Javed
Thursday 26 May 2022 10:35 BST
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The results were not affected by the mother’s cognitive abilities or socioeconomic status.
The results were not affected by the mother’s cognitive abilities or socioeconomic status. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Children who are breastfed for longer develop better verbal and cognitive skills, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Oxford analysed data on 7,855 infants born between 2000-2002, who were followed until age 14 as part of the UK Millennium Cohort Study.

They found that those who had been breastfed longer performed better on a range of tests taken at age 5, 7, 11 and 14.

The results were not affected by the mother’s cognitive abilities or socioeconomic status.

While previous studies had identified a link between breastfeeding and children’s intelligence, a causal relationship has been debated.

For the study, researchers grouped the children according to how long they had been breastfed as babies – from less than two months to more than 12 months.

They carried out tests which measured the children’s vocabulary, verbal reasoning and reading skills and how well they could express themselves. The children were also assessed on spatial problem-solving skills.

Those who were breastfed for 12 months or longer scored higher in all tests up to age 14.

The authors of the study said that the differences in test scores between the groups were “small for an individual child but could be important at the population level”.

“There is some debate about whether breastfeeding a baby for a longer period of time improves their cognitive development. In the UK women who have more educational qualifications and are more economically advantaged tend to breastfeed for longer,” the authors commented.

“In addition, this group tends to score more highly on cognitive tests. These differences could explain why babies who breastfeed for longer do better in cognitive assessments.

“However, in our study, we found that even after taking these differences into account, children breastfed for longer scored higher in cognitive measures up to age 14, in comparison to children who were not breastfed.”

The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.

The NHS recommends that babies are fed exclusively on breastmilk for the first six months after birth.

In 2010, the Infant Feeding Survey found that 81 per cent of mothers attempt to breastfeed their newborn babies, but by the end of the first week more than half of those babies had some kind of formula.

According to Latch Aid, an app that provides support and guidance for mothers who want to breastfeed, 90 per cent of women who give up breastfeeding do so quicker than they want to.

Some women said they stopped breastfeeding because of pain and lack of support. This breastfeeding pain is largely caused by incorrect latching and subsequent nipple damage, Latch Aid said.

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