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Why breastfed babies are so smart

Published: Friday, March 14 2014 8:00 p.m. MDT

Breastfeeding helps babies in lots of ways, but it may not be the key to getting little guys on track to succeed in school. A BYU study shows cognitive development is revved up by reading to children and paying attention to their emotional cues.

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Breastfeeding helps babies in lots of ways, but it's not the key to getting little guys on track to succeed in school as some have suggested. A recent BYU study shows cognitive development is revved up by reading to babies starting around 9 months and by paying attention to their emotional cues.

Moms who breastfeed tend to do both those things, said the authors of the study, which is published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

"What we find is no advantage for early, early cognitive development," said Ben Gibbs, sociology professor at Brigham Young University and the study's lead author. "It is really a proxy for the kinds of mothers who breastfeed."

The study does not suggest that breastfeeding isn't valuable in other ways for babies, according to Gibbs and study co-author and fellow BYU professor Renata Forste.

Simply put, mothers who breastfeed are likely to be the type of parent who would read to a child every night and pay close attention to a child's emotional cues, he said.

They found that being attentive to a child's emotional cues and reading consistently with the child could make a difference of 2-3 months in brain development in children by age 4, when they are entering preschool. That is measured by math and reading readiness testing checks, they said.

"There is a positive relationship between predominant breastfeeding for three months or more and child reading skills, but this link is the result of cognitively supportive parenting behaviors and greater levels of education among women who predominantly breastfed," the study reported. "We found little-to-no relationship between infant feeding practices and the cognitive development of children with less-educated mothers. Instead, reading to a child every day and being sensitive to a child's development were significant predictors of math and reading readiness outcomes."

Nuts and bolts

The conclusions are based on analysis of national data collected between 2001 and 2007 that followed 7,000 kids from their birth to 5 years of age. Mothers were assessed as they interacted with their children, including some videotaping. Home conditions were also noted, among other things. In all, the original researchers gathered a data set containing a great deal of information that different researchers could analyze to answer the questions that interested them.

Forste is an expert on breastfeeding and Gibbs knows about cognitive outcomes, so they combined their areas of expertise to answer one of the persistent questions about children and breastfeeding: There's an association between breastfeeding and a young child's readiness for school, but is it the cause of the readiness?

The answer, they concluded, is no.

Videos were taken of moms who were given a bag that contained either a set of toy dishes or a book. They videotaped as they accomplished a 10-minute task with their 2-year-olds, Gibbs said. But the researchers weren't really interested in whether they completed the job. They were noting, instead, interaction details like whether mom turned the page and kept reading even though the child had a finger on a spot and seemed to want to linger. Moms who were good at picking up cues did things like stop and talk about that page or ask the child a question. The responsive, supportive moms reacted to gestures and expressions and that turned out to be very important to cognitive development.

Why it matters

The finding is "important enough that if I were going to, as a policymaker, structure a program to promote full readiness for school ... I would put my money on trying to encourage reading, which any caregiver can do, and helping (parents) learn how to respond to their children," said Forste. "There are plenty of reasons to promote breastfeeding, but not this."

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