by Mirta Desir
Most parents will agree that motherhood begins at conception and continues throughout pregnancy. Once a mom’s pregnancy ends by giving birth, a new step in motherhood begins. There are few things that a new mom can do during the first few hours, days, months and years after giving birth that are as important as breastfeeding.
Secret # 1: Breastfeeding Your Way to a Smarter Child
According to research, breastfeeding is likely one of the most important things mom can do to help raise a child’s IQ from birth (note that the research shows an association between breastfeeding and intelligence, not cause and effect). Harvard University researchers* found that young children who were breastfed as infants scored higher on intelligence tests than formula-fed kids, and the longer and more exclusively the children were breast-fed, the greater the difference in intelligence.
Specifically, researchers found that 7-year-olds whose moms breastfeed during the child’s first year, exclusively or in combination with formula, gained a little more than a third of a point in verbal IQ for each month of breastfeeding as compared to children who were never breastfed. Thus, if the mom did any mix of breastfeeding for the entire 12 months, the gain would be 4.2 verbal IQ points.
The relationship between breastfeeding and intelligence was stronger when researchers focused on children whose moms exclusively breast-fed them during the first six months. The 7-year-olds showed an increase of four-fifths of a point in verbal IQ each month over children who were never breast-fed. This means a 4.8 point gain in verbal IQ if a child is exclusively breast-fed during their entire first six months of life.
What are the other advantages to breastfeeding? Research shows that in addition to increasing a child’s intelligence, breastfeeding:
- protects baby from illnesses and infections because a mother’s breast milk is specifically tailored to her baby. A mom’s body responds to pathogens (virus and bacteria) that are in her body and makes secretory IgA that is specific to those pathogens, creating protection for mom’s baby based on whatever mom is exposed to.
- may protect baby from developing allergies. If a baby is at risk of developing allergies (usually if a parent or sibling has an allergy), exclusive breastfeeding may prevent or delay the allergies for up to four months and beyond.
- may protect baby from developing obesity. According to research by Li, Fein and Grummer-Strawn, breastfeeding babies are more likely to self-regulate their eating habits, which may have an effect later on in life. According to the study, this may be due to the fact that when bottle feeding, parents may encourage an infant to finish the contents of the bottle whereas when breastfeeding, an infant naturally develops self-regulation of milk intake.
- may protect baby from SIDS. Research Horne shows that breast-fed babies are more easily aroused from active sleep at 2-3 months, which coincides with peak incidents of sudden infant death syndrome. A study conducted by Vennemann shows that bottle feeding doubled the risk of SIDS up to age 1.
- may reduce mom’s stress level and postpartum depression.
- may reduce the risks of some type of cancers.
Some women may experience problems when trying to breastfeed. There are many local and national organizations dedicated to helping women breastfeed. Women should contact a local organization in their local area if experiencing problems breastfeeding.
* The lead author of the study is Dr. Mandy Belfort, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School
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