The many benefits of breastfeeding have been lauded for years. Science has been eager to find additional benefits, as well as strengthen its existing theories. In the process, it seems scientists may inadvertently be debunking a few long-held beliefs about the power of breastfeeding on a developing baby's brain. A recent study that wanted to better understand the impact of breastfeeding on cognitive development revealed that breastfed kids are less likely to be hyperactive as toddlers — but that they aren't necessarily smarter.
The study, conducted in Ireland, is hardly the first to look for evidence of breastfeeding's role in early cognitive development. The study was actually hoping to strengthen the theory that breastfeeding makes kids smarter — but no causal link was established. The researchers looked at about 8,000 children who had been followed by researchers since they were approximately 9 months old. Between the ages of 3 and 5, the children were evaluated for cognitive abilities, and their parents and teachers were asked questions about their development. Not unlike previous studies, researchers were curious about whether the children who had been breastfed would demonstrate stronger cognitive abilities. In terms of whether breastfed kids were "smarter," the researchers in this study said the differences weren't statistically significant, according to NPR. That meant they couldn't claim a causal link.
They did, however, find that the toddlers who had been breastfed for at least six months were less likely to be hyperactive at age 3 than the children who were not breastfed. However, by the time the children were 5 years old, those findings weren't statistically significant either, according to CNN. And the study's lead researcher, Lisa-Christine Girard, also pointed out that the effects on behavior and cognition were only observed in children who had been breastfed for at least six months. This led researchers to believe that it may not be if a child is breastfed but instead how long they are breastfeed that determines the cognitive and/or behavioral benefits they'll reap.
Researchers have also pointed out that, when it comes to trying to establish a casual link between breastfeeding, behavior, and intelligence, it may be that socioeconomic circumstances — not necessarily the act of breastfeeding itself — has a larger impact on a child's cognitive development. Breastfeeding as a parenting behavior may occur more often in parents who are also more likely to engage in behaviors that would support early cognitive development, such as reading.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2016 report on breastfeeding, of babies born in 2013, 81 percent were breastfed at some point, and over half were still being breastfed at 6 months old. While the rate of breastfeeding overall has gone up in recent years, the rate of breastfeeding for six months or longer has remained low, according to the CDC. That being said, if research is finding that the benefits of breastfeeding are contingent on duration, children who are breastfed for shorter periods may not be getting all those benefits.
Regardless, the recommendations for breastfeeding haven't changed: The American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends that a mother breastfeed at least for the first year, and the WHO recommends breastfeeding up to 2 years at least. While breastfeeding isn't always possible, if it's something that a mother is interested in, and she chooses to pursue it for any period of time, there are definitely a number of benefits. Breastfeeding is one way that mothers and babies can forge an emotional bond, and it also provides a boost to a baby's immune system that can help them stay healthy, according to the NIH. So, whether or it will also boost early cognitive development, or make a kid less hyper by the time they start school, there are plenty of reasons some mothers choose to breastfeed — none of which will doom the child of a mother who doesn't.