There are many known health benefits linked to breastfeeding. To name a few, breast milk has lots of nutrients and antibodies that help keep babies strong and healthy and it can lower the risk of little ones developing things like allergies and asthma as they get older. It’s also been linked to higher IQ scores, although many of the supposed cognitive benefits have been debated for years. And now there’s a bit more to talk about since a new study found that breastfeeding doesn’t actually affect kids’ intelligence later in life and has little overall impact on long-term cognitive development.
Researchers analyzed data from nearly 8,000 children in Ireland and they ultimately found that while breastfeeding doesn’t necessarily make kids smarter in the long run, it did reveal that kids who were breastfed for at least six months were less likely to be hyperactive when they were toddlers compared with kids who weren’t. But, by age 5, that difference had faded away, reiterating a lack of long-term behavioral benefits.
The study — published in The Journal of Pediatrics on Monday — collected data from the children when they were 9 months, 3 years old, and again when they were 5 years old. At each check-in, parents were asked to fill out questionnaires that focused on their children’s vocabulary and problem-solving skills. Meanwhile, the kids, at ages 3 and 5, took standardized tests to measure cognitive abilities, according to NPR. The results showed that breastfed kids only scored a little bit higher on the tests, but the difference was not big enough for it to draw a significant link between kids' intelligence and breastfeeding.
"We weren't able to find a direct causal link between breast-feeding and children's cognitive outcomes," Lisa-Christine Girard, lead author of the study and a child-development researcher at University College Dublin, told NPR, adding that they weren't entirely surprised by the results because there are plenty of factors to consider when it comes to a child's cognitive abilities and intelligence, such as a mother's (and father's) level of education, whether she smoked during pregnancy, and varying home environments.
Another factor, for example, is that wealthier women are more likely to breastfeed their babies than low-income women due to many socio-economic norms and workplace barriers — and those certainly come into play within this breastfeeding debate, which is what this latest study attempted to apply to their findings.
This is hardly the first study to shed light on this debate. In 2013, researchers said kids who were breastfed longer had higher IQs than kids who were formula-fed. But then in 2015, another study found that breastfeeding has no impact on a child's intelligence. It can be hard to keep track of this ever-evolving and controversial discussion, but this new study has been regarded by those in the industry as "a thoughtful contribution to the breastfeeding literature," according to The Huffington Post. Still, for those us not doing the research, this back-and-forth can be super confusing.
While there is still no clear answer on how breastfeeding affects a child's brain later on in life, these conflicting findings don't change doctor's recommendations for this feeding method. If mothers are able to, medical experts say babies should be breastfed for at least the first six months of their lives and can continue to do so for as long both mom and baby desire to.
There are plenty of reasons to breastfeed, but for moms who are on the fence about whether or not they should, the impact on a child's potential IQ doesn't appear to be one of them for now.