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Breastfeeding boosts baby's IQ, health, new studies show as more moms try it

Published: Thursday, Aug. 1 2013 6:40 p.m. MDT

New research shows breastfeeding has long-term benefits for a baby's developing intelligence. The longer nursing occurs, the greater the enhancement on vocabulary and IQ.

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New research shows breastfeeding has long-term benefits for a baby's developing intelligence. The longer nursing occurs, the greater the enhancement on vocabulary and IQ.

Meanwhile, a major new report shows more mothers are trying to breastfeed and more are breastfeeding their babies longer.

In a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, one of the American Medical Association's journals, researchers from Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard showed that verbal scores were higher at age 3 and IQ scores at age 7 if the child had breastfed for the first year.

The researchers looked at data from more than 1,300 babies whose moms breastfed them for at least six months. In later intelligence testing of those babies, they found verbal scores were .2 higher at age 3 for each month the baby was breastfed, while at age 7, they demonstrated IQ score increase equivalent to one-third of a point for each month of breastfeeding. That benefit was for both verbal and nonverbal intelligence. At both ages, the measure of intellectual improvement was statistically significant.

Benefits of breastfeeding have long been touted within the medical community.

American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines note that "Breastfeeding provides a protective effect against respiratory illnesses, ear infections, gastrointestinal diseases and allergies including asthma, eczema and atopic dermatitis. The rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is reduced by over a third in breastfed babies, and there is a 15 percent to 30 percent reduction in adolescent and adult obesity in breastfed vs. non-breastfed infants."

Previous studies have also found intellectual benefits, but the new one controlled for other issues that could account for the benefit, including a mother's intelligence, education, or economic background. The findings bring the research a step closer to showing causation, rather than just association, said lead author Dr. Mandy Belfort of Boston Children's Hospital.

More breastfeeding moms

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week heralded numbers showing an increase in how many women at least try to breastfeed, from 71 percent in 2000 to 77 percent in 2009. While that's good news for babies and families, experts said, many women stop breastfeeding by about six months, the minimum duration recommended by national and international health organizations. At six months of age, only 47 percent are breastfed, and it falls to 26 percent at 12 months, CDC figures show.

The new findings point out that even when breastfeeding is difficult, perseverance is worth it. The AAP and the World Health Organization are among groups that herald significant benefits to breastfeeding exclusively for six months and continuing to augment feedings with breast milk at least to baby's first birthday.

"This is great news for the health of our nation because babies who are breastfed have lower risks of ear and gastrointestinal infections, diabetes and obesity and mothers who breastfeed have lower risks of breast and ovarian cancers," said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden. "Also, breastfeeding lowers health care costs."

He said researchers believe if women met breastfeeding recommendations, Americans would save $2.2 billion a year in health care costs.

Challenges

Illinois-based La Leche League International has chapters in every state and around the world. They find great consistency in what women ask and what they need as they approach breastfeeding, said spokeswoman Diana West.

Most women want to breastfeed, she said, and are well aware of the benefits, which go even beyond the positives on both mom's and baby's health. Besides building baby's immune system, it promotes intimacy and bonding, for example.

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