Breastfeeding doesn't make children more intelligent in the long term, finds study

Previous research 'may have been influenced by socioeconomic factors'

Katie Forster
Monday 27 March 2017 16:45 BST
Nearly three quarters of mothers in the UK breastfeed
Nearly three quarters of mothers in the UK breastfeed (Rex Features)

A child’s cognitive development is the same at five years old regardless of whether they were breast or bottle fed, a new study has found.

The behaviour, vocabulary level and cognitive ability of 7,478 children in Ireland was measured at age three and five and analysed in relation to whether or not they had been breastfed.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, linked breastfeeding with improved problem solving and reduced hyperactivity in children aged three, but not at the age of five.

No evidence was found that breastfeeding affected vocabulary and other abilities at either age.

Author Lisa-Christine Girard, from University College Dublin, said previous research showing the long-term benefits of breastfeeding may have been affected by socio-economic factors such as the mother’s education and income.

“There’s a certain profile of mothers in developed countries who engage in breastfeeding behaviour,” Dr Girard told The Independent. “So it’s important to tease that apart and understand the direct link, if there is one.”

She said mothers who were more highly educated, better off financially and who engage in less risky prenatal behaviour such as smoking, which can impact on a child’s development, were statistically more likely to breastfeed.

But after the data was randomised, “we didn’t find any statistically significant differences between children who were breastfed and those who weren’t, in terms of their cognitive ability and language,” said Dr Girard.

“We did find direct effect of breastfeeding on a reduction in hyperactive behaviours when the children were three years old. This wasn’t found at five years, suggesting there may be other factors that are more influential as children develop.”

Woman kicked out of court for breastfeeding

Nearly three quarters of mothers in the UK breastfeed, according to the NHS, and it is well established that breast milk helps protect newborn babies from infections and diseases.

However, whether breastfeeding in a baby’s first months also carries long-term benefits has been hotly debated for years.

Dr Girard said ethical considerations make it difficult to conduct in-depth studies into the effect of breastfeeding on the brain: “We can’t tell one group of mothers to breastfeed and another not”.

Brooke Orosz, a maths professor at Essex County College in New Jersey who was not involved in the study, told CNN the findings fit in with previous research.

“The long-term benefits of breastfeeding look a whole lot smaller or non-existent if you properly control for your confounding variables,” she said.

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