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Study touts benefits of breast-feeding

Researchers link the practice to higher child IQ

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Will Dunham
Reuters / May 6, 2008

WASHINGTON - A new study provides some of the best evidence to date that breast-feeding can make children smarter, an international team of researchers said yesterday.

Children whose mothers breast-fed them longer and did not mix in baby formula scored higher on intelligence tests, researchers in Canada and Belarus reported.

About half the 14,000 babies were randomly assigned to a group in which prolonged and exclusive breast-feeding by the mother was encouraged at Belarusian hospitals and clinics. The mothers of the other babies received no special encouragement.

Those in the breast-feeding encouragement group were, on average, breast-fed longer than the others and were less likely to have been given formula in a bottle.

At 3 months, 73 percent of the babies in the breast-feeding group were breast-fed, compared with 60 percent of the other group. At 6 months, it was 50 percent versus 36 percent.

In addition, the group given encouragement was far more likely to give their children only breast milk. The rate was seven times higher, for example, at 3 months.

The children were monitored for about 6 1/2 years.

The children in the group where breast-feeding was encouraged scored about 5 percent higher in IQ tests and did better academically, researchers found.

Previous studies had indicated brain development and intelligence benefits for breast-fed children.

But researchers have sought to determine whether the benefits were because the children were breast-fed, or that mothers who prefer to breast-feed their babies may differ from those who do not.

The design of the study - randomly assigning babies to two groups regardless of the mothers' characteristics - was intended to eliminate the confusion.

"Mothers who breast-feed or those who breast-feed longer or most exclusively are different from the mothers who don't," Dr. Michael Kramer of McGill University in Montreal and the Montreal Children's Hospital said in a phone interview.

"They tend to be smarter. They tend to be more invested in their babies. They tend to interact with them more closely. They may be the kind of mothers who read to their kids more, who spend more time with their kids, who play with them more," added Kramer, who led the study published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

Researchers measured the differences between the two groups using IQ tests administered by the children's pediatricians and by ratings by their teachers of their school performance.

Both sets of scores were significantly higher in the children from the breast-feeding promotion group.

The study was launched in the mid-1990s. Kramer said the initial idea was to do it in the United States and Canada, but many hospitals in those countries by that time had begun strongly encouraging breast-feeding as a matter of routine.

The situation was different in Belarus at the time, he said, with less routine encouragement for the practice.

Kramer said that how breast-feeding may make children more intelligent is unclear.

"It could even be that because breast-feeding takes longer, the mother is interacting more with the baby, talking with the baby, soothing the baby," he said. "It could be an emotional thing. It could be a physical thing. Or it could be a hormone or something else in the milk that's absorbed by the baby."

Previous studies have shown that babies whose mothers breast-fed them enjoy many health advantages over formula-fed babies.

These include fewer ear, stomach, or intestinal infections, digestive problems, skin diseases and allergies, and less risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women who do not have health problems exclusively breast-feed their infants for at least the first six months, and continue to breast-feed at least through the first year as other foods are introduced.

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