A new study finds that breastfed babies score higher on neurocognitive tests when they get older. Researchers in the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) led the study.
They compiled data from thousands of cognitive tests taken by nine and ten-year-olds whose mothers provided them with breast milk as babies. Then, they compared these scores to those of non-breastfed children.
“Our findings suggest that any amount of breastfeeding has a positive cognitive impact, even after just a few months.” Daniel Adan Lopez, a Ph.D. candidate in the Epidemiology program and the first author of the study. “That’s what’s exciting about these results. Hopefully, from a policy standpoint, this can help improve the motivation to breastfeed.”
Hayley Martin, Ph.D., a medical student in the Medical Scientist Training Program and co-author of the study, mainly researches the benefits of breastfeeding. “There’s already established research showing the numerous benefits breastfeeding has for both mother and child. This study’s findings are important for families particularly before and soon after birth when breastfeeding decisions are made.”
“It may encourage breastfeeding goals of one year or more. It also highlights the critical importance of continued work to provide equity-focused access to breastfeeding support, prenatal education, and practices to eliminate structural barriers to breastfeeding.”
The study was published on April 26 in the journal Frontiers in Public Health.
Major findings from the study on cognitive benefits of breastfeeding children
For the study, researchers analyzed the test results of over 9,000 nine and ten-year-old children. They took part in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, the largest long-term study of child health and brain development. The team found significant differences between the cumulative cognitive test scores of breastfed and non-breastfed children. They also found that the longer a mom breastfed her child, the higher that child scored.
“The strongest association was in children who were breastfed more than 12 months,” said Lopez. “The scores of children breastfed until they were seven to 12 months were slightly less, and then the one to six-month-old scores dips a little more. But all scores were higher when compared to children who didn’t breastfeed at all.”
However, the study found that breastfeeding doesn’t significantly impact executive function or memory. Previous research corroborates these findings.
“This supports the foundation of work already being done around lactation and breastfeeding and its impact on a child’s health,” said Ed Freedman, Ph.D., the main investigator of the ABCD study in Rochester and lead author of the study. “These are findings that would have not been possible without the ABCD Study, and the expansive data set it provides.”
Additional co-authors include John Foxe, Ph.D., and Yunjiao Mao with URMC and Wesley Thompson of University of California San Diego. URMC is one of 21 sites in the U.S. collecting data for the ABCD study.
Through 2026, the institute will continue collecting data on 340 local participants. In all, the study will follow 11,750 children through early adulthood. Researchers will analyze how biological development, behaviors, and experiences impact brain maturation, academic performance, social development, and overall health. The National Institutes of Health-funded the study.
Breastfed babies also have better health in other ways
These compelling reasons prove natural breastmilk outperforms baby formula.
1. They have fewer allergies
Breastmilk lowers the chance of babies developing allergies because it contains secretory IgA. This antibody helps form a protective layer in the baby’s digestive tract. The protein prevents allergic reactions caused by undigested food in the intestines. Non-breast-fed babies have a higher risk of developing allergies since formulas don’t contain IgA.
2. They may have a higher IQ
Research shows that breastfeeding babies might boost their IQ because it increases white matter in their brains. In fact, one study found that children breastfed for the first six months scored 7.5 points higher on verbal tests. The results come from the largest randomized trial ever conducted on breastfeeding, proving that it can improve cognition significantly.
3. Breastfed babies have less likelihood of becoming obese
According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, breastfed babies have a lower risk of becoming obese in adolescence or adulthood. Studies have shown that the longer a mom breastfeeds, the less chance her child will become overweight. Infant formulas usually have a much higher sugar content than breastmilk, which could explain the obesity risk.
4. They have a lower risk of developing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
SIDS occurs when a baby suddenly stops breathing while they’re asleep. This can occur for a few reasons, such as the baby having a brain defect or respiratory infection. However, studies have found that breastfed babies have a reduced risk of developing SIDS. Research shows that even two months of breastfeeding reduces SIDS risk by almost 50%.
5. Breastmilk contains many important nutrients
Finally, breastmilk contains natural nutrition that just can’t be mimicked by formula. While synthetic milk is similar nutritionally, it’s missing key components such as immunity-boosting antibodies. A mother’s milk can adapt quickly to cater to the baby’s needs. For example, if they’re sick, you’ll have extra antibodies in your breastmilk to help your baby fight the infection. Breastmilk is also easier to digest for infants than formula.
It’s clear that breastfeeding offers many benefits to both mom and baby. Not only does it help a child bond with their mother, but it also protects the baby from infection. Breast-fed babies also have more robust immune systems and even score higher on cognitive tests later in life. While some mothers prefer formula for their babies, even two months of breastfeeding can make a huge difference.
Not to mention, a commercial formula can never replace a mother’s milk since it’s missing vital antibodies from the mom. Many studies have shown that breastfed babies have better health across the board. Plus, infant formula can get quite expensive for a new mom, and breastmilk is totally free. Of course, it’s a personal choice whether someone should breastfeed or not, and some women can’t wait for medical reasons. Always consult your doctor or gynecologist if you have questions about breastfeeding.