Both the scientific community and the general population attribute a large number of advantages to breastfeeding over bottle use. In addition to improving the immune system or the rate of physical growth, shown by science, it is sometimes also called that breastfeeding increases the intelligence of babies.
Currently available research cannot categorically state that breast milk consumption is directly related to IQ. However, and although there are conflicting data on this subject, the likelihood of a small but significant cause-and-effect relationship between these two variables is high.
Relationship between breastfeeding and intelligence
According to a meta-analysis of 17 studies on this topic by Horta, Loret de Mola and Victora (2015), there appears to be a relationship between breastfeeding and better performance in tests that measure IQ.
The average of the differences, say the authors of this research, would be worth approximately 3.44 CI points. This is a relatively small difference, but of high statistical significance and persists in later stages of development.
However, these researchers point out that the heterogeneity between studies is high, which makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions. However, it should be borne in mind that they tried to control the mother’s IQ, a variable that might interfere, but not the potentially key socioeconomic level of the family.
Another interesting finding from this meta-analysis is that breastfeeding is not only associated with an increase in IC, but also it could also influence the overall academic performance and in the level of income in adulthood. These effects may be directly due to breastfeeding, but also to unidentified mediating variables.
What are the reasons for these effects?
Horta and colleagues suggest that the link between breastfeeding and increased IC should not be due to breast milk itself but could be determined by other factors, in particular the greater interaction between the infant and his mother, which would result in the stimulation the baby receives.
Assuming that breastfeeding directly increases intelligence, this causal relationship could be attributed to two main facts: i strengthen the bond between baby and mother and the nutritional richness of breast milk.
This food contains nutrients that are very beneficial for the little ones, such as long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. Its consumption could stimulate the development of the brain and white matter in particular, according to Isaacs et al. (2011).
Proof against this hypothesis
A longitudinal study involving a sample of over 8,000 families in Ireland (Girard et al., 2017) found a statistically significant relationship between breastfeeding and IC in the early stages of life; however, this is a slight increase and he practically disappeared when he reached the age of 5.
This research team found that infants who were routinely breastfed by their mothers for the first 6 months after birth had improved cognitive function, although this was not sustained over the medium term. Therefore, in adulthood, this increase in IC would predictably be nonexistent.
According to these authors, the effects found in other studies were due to insufficient control of the variables. It should be noted in particular the educational and socio-economic levels of parents, Which in turn are associated with better health, including a lower likelihood of smoking.
Other benefits of breastfeeding
Different research has found relationships between early consumption of breast milk and better functioning of the immune system. It would help prevent a wide variety of illnesses, from infections to diabetes and even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
In fact, the World Health Organization states that the risk of death in the first month of life is six times lower in breastfed infants compared to those fed exclusively from a bottle.
In any case, it is important to note that many studies on the effects of breastfeeding on the body could be biased in the same way that we mentioned when describing the relationship of this food to the body. intelligence.
Finally we must mention the relevance of the bond of affection between mother and baby. This can have a big influence on the development of the little one, especially from a psychological point of view. Breastfeeding enhances this intimate relationship, but of course there are many other things that can do just that.
- Girard, LC, Doyle, O. and Tremblay, RE (2017). Breastfeeding, cognitive and non-cognitive development in early childhood: a population study. Pediatrics, 139 (4).
- Horta, BL, Loret de Mola, C. and Victora, CG (2015). Breastfeeding and intelligence: systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Pediatrica, 104: 14-19.
- Isaacs, EB, Fischl, BR, Quinn, BT, Chong, WK, Gadian, DG and Lucas, A. (2010). Impact of breast milk on IQ, brain size, and white matter development. Pediatric Research, 67 (4): 357-62.
- Lucas, A., Morley, R., Cole, TJ, Lister, G. and Leeson-Payne, C. (1992). Breast milk and posterior intelligence quotient in premature babies. The Lancet, 339 (8788): 261-264.
- Victora, CG, Horta, BL, Loret de Mola, C., Quevedo, L., Tavares Pinheiro, R., Gigante, DP, Gonçalves, H. & Barros, FC (2015). Association between breastfeeding and intelligence, academic success and income at age 30: prospective birth cohort study in Brazil. The Lancet: Global Health, 3 (4): 199-205.