What parent doesn’t want their child to be even a little bit smarter? We do all we can to give them an extra edge. We buy them educational toys, read to them, make sure they get enough sleep and don’t watch too much mindless TV. There’s also something we can do as soon as they’re born that will help — because scientists have found a link between breastfeeding and both high IQ and income levels.
Long-term Impact of Breastfeeding
You’ve probably heard statistics about breastfed babies being healthier, but did you know they’re smarter too? It’s true. Multiple studies have shown infants who are breastfed score higher on IQ tests. Thirty-seven countries rank ahead of the US for math, science and reading scores. Higher IQ scores can only help improve those rankings.
Most studies have only looked at the IQs of children. Researchers in Brazil studied the impact of breastfeeding at 30 years of age. They found having been breastfed positively affected not only IQ, but education attained and income level. This indicates the benefits are both significant and last through the years.
Why Breast Milk Tops Forumula IQ-Wise
While studies have shown the brains of breastfed children are different than those of that are formula-fed — nutrients like taurine, amino acids, proteins, enzymes, ARA, DHA and other long-chain fatty acids are highly beneficial in breast milk — there may be several reasons for the effect on IQ.
Much of the research that’s been published has looked at the effect of breast milk on premature infants. This is a group at great risk for learning issues. Research has shown feeding premature infants’ breast milk without actually breastfeeding, still has a positive impact on preemies’ health and IQ.
The differences in IQ resulting from being breastfed aren’t vast, but those few extra points can be significant. Most people are at a “normal” level of intelligence. However, it’s important to remember only 10 points differentiates the middle of the normal range and the middle of the range considered “dull.”
In a 2013 study, Dr. Mandy Belfort, a neonatologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, released the following findings from a study on breastfeeding’s impact on IQ: “…more than 1,300 moms and their babies, who were breastfed for periods ranging from less than a month to more than a year, found that each month of breastfeeding bolstered a 0.3-point increase in intelligence by age 3 and 0.5-point increase by age 7.
The differences held up even when the researchers controlled for parental intelligence, income, employment and education, and the benefit was biggest when babies were breastfed exclusively for the first six months — a target endorsed by experts but often untenable for working moms.”
Small increases in IQ can have an even bigger impact in the lower ranges. It can make the difference in whether a child can read or not. Or whether a child struggles in school. Those few extra points can mean average or gifted. For children with higher IQs, it can make the difference between getting into a gifted educational program or not. When you start to look at all the small things, the differences become a big deal.
For the Health of It
One aspect of how breastfeeding can affect the intellectual health of our country may not have been considered. It’s well-documented that breastfeeding is associated with a lower incidence of a variety of illnesses and diseases throughout life. Just a few of the health benefits received from being breastfed: SIDS prevention, a lowered risk of allergies/asthma, lower incidences of ear infections and upper respiratory illnesses.
Breastfeeding has also been found to strengthen immune systems. As for how that impacts IQ — kids getting sick more often will result in them missing more days of school. Illness also causes more stress, which can, in turn, affect learning.
There has been a tendency by the press to pounce on any study that shows a minimal effect of breastfeeding on IQ. However, when all of these factors are combined, even if it is just a little difference, who doesn’t want to ensure their child is their healthiest.
*Author Andrea Tran RN, MA, IBCLC is a nurse and lactation specialist.