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March 3, 2014 by KAREN FOSTER
Study May Show Another Reason Breastfed Babies Are So Smart


Loads of studies over the years have shown that children who were breastfed score higher on IQ tests and perform better in school, but the reason why remained unclear. Is it the mother-baby bonding time, something in the milk itself or some unseen attribute of mothers who breastfeed their babies? It may be a little of both.



Breast milk is the most nutritious feed for the baby, protects them against infections and offers various benefits to the mother, including helping to lose the weight gained during pregnancy and reducing the risk of certain cancers.

Premature babies may especially benefit from breast milk because it's "twice as good as formula"' at providing not only nutrients but antioxidant protection as well, according to a study presented at the Experimental Biology.

Two studies by University of Illinois food science and human nutrition professor Sharon Donovan show that the soy isoflavone genistein, in amounts present in commercial soy infant formulas, may inhibit intestinal cell growth in babies and possibly affect IQ levels.

British researchers also reported that babies fed a dairy-based formula grew up to have higher blood pressure than babies who were breast-fed.

One study
concluded that children who were breastfed for fewer than three months were more likely to score below average for mental skills at 13 months, and have lower IQ levels at five years, than those who were breastfed for six months or more.

Another study carried out by researchers at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, found that demand-feeding is associated with higher IQ scores at age eight, and this difference is also evident in the results of SATs tests at ages five, seven, 11 and 14.

A new study titled “Breastfeeding, Parenting and Early Cognitive Development.” by sociologists at Brigham Young University pinpoints two parenting skills as yet another source of this cognitive boost: Responding to children’s emotional cues and reading to children starting at 9 months of age. Breastfeeding mothers tend to do both of those things, said lead study author Ben Gibbs.

“It’s really the parenting that makes the difference,” said Gibbs. “Breastfeeding matters in others ways, but this actually gives us a better mechanism and can shape our confidence about interventions that promote school readiness.”

Gibbs authored the study with fellow BYU professor Renata Forste for the March issue of The Journal of Pediatrics. According to their analysis, improvements in sensitivity to emotional cues and time reading to children could yield 2-3 months’ worth of brain development by age 4 (as measured by math and reading readiness assessments).

“Because these are four-year-olds, a month or two represents a non-trivial chunk of time,” Gibbs said. “And if a child is on the edge of needing special education, even a small boost across some eligibility line could shape a child’s educational trajectory.”

The BYU scholars utilized a national data set that followed 7,500 mothers and their children from birth to five years of age. The data set is rich with information on the home environment, including how early and how often parents read to their kids. Additionally, each of the mothers in the study also participated in video-taped activities with their children. As the child tried to complete a challenging task, the mother’s supportiveness and sensitivity to their child’s emotional cues were measured.

The study gained editorial praise from child development expert Sandra Jacobson of Wayne State University School of Medicine. She noted that children in the study who were breastfed for 6 months or longer performed the best on reading assessments because they also “experienced the most optimal parenting practices.

“Gibbs and Forste found that reading to an infant every day as early as age 9 months and sensitivity to the child’s cues during social interactions, rather than breastfeeding per se, were significant predictors of reading readiness at age 4 years,” wrote Jacobson.

The BYU researchers note that the most at-risk children are also the least likely to receive the optimal parenting in early childhood. Single moms in the labor force, for example, don’t have the same luxuries when it comes to breastfeeding and quality time with the children. Parents with less education don’t necessarily hear about research-based parenting practices, either.

“This is the luxury of the advantaged,” Forste said. “It makes it harder to think about how we promote environments for disadvantaged homes. These things can be learned and they really matter. And being sensitive to kids and reading to kids doesn’t have to be done just by the mother.”

Karen Foster is a holistic nutritionist, avid blogger, with five kids and an active lifestyle that keeps her in pursuit of the healthiest path towards a life of balance.

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