Longer breastfeeding linked to higher IQ

A 30-year study suggests that longer breastfeeding could boost your child's career - but it's not saying that bottle fed babies aren't brainy...

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If you’re going to breastfeed your baby, it may be worth sticking at it for as long as you can – even beyond the recommended 6 months. That’s because scientists are now suggesting that the longer a breastfed baby is breastfed for, the higher their IQ may be as an adult.

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The scientists studied more than 6,000 babies born in 1982 in Brazil – where breastfeeding is very much the norm –and followed them from birth to adulthood, noting along the way how long each baby was breastfed for. When the ‘babies’ reached 30, the scientists tested their IQ and noted how they’d stayed in education and how much money they earned in their job. 

The findings, published in The Lancet, suggest that those who had been breastfed for 12 months or more had a higher IQ, had stayed in education for longer and earned a higher salary than those who’d been breastfed for less than 1 month. 

Of course, not every mother can – or wants to – breastfeed. And this study didn’t compare the IQs of bottle-fed babies with breastfed ones, as some previous smaller studies have tried to do.

What’s interesting about this study is that, unlike in previous studies looking at the link between breastfeeding and intelligence, the breastfed babies who were tracked, and then tested as adults, came from families at every income level. 

“In the population we studied,” says Dr Bernardo Lessa Horta from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil who led the research, “breastfeeding was not more common among highly educated, high-income women, but was evenly distributed by social class. Previous studies from developed countries have been criticised for failing to disentangle the effect of breastfeeding from that of socioeconomic advantage, but our work addresses this issue for the first time.”

Experts commenting on the study in The Lancet have emphasised that Dr Horta’s findings need to be corroborated by further evidence before the health powers-that-be declare we should all aim to be breastfeeding for longer but many also agree that all mothers who wish to breastfeed should get the best support possible to continue breastfeeding as long as they feel able to.

The World Health Organisation recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively for 6 months but, in the UK, fewer than 25 per cent of new mothers are breastfeeding exclusively by the time their baby is 6 weeks old.

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