Study shows no long-term cognitive benefit to breastfeeding
There are many scientifically proven benefits to breastfeeding. Breast milk contains antibodies that help your baby fight off viruses and bacteria. Breastfeeding lowers your baby’s risk of having asthma or allergies. And, babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first six months, without any formula, have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and bouts of diarrhea.
But a new study shows that the cognitive effects of breastfeeding taper off the older the child gets. Meaning, breastfeeding isn’t necessarily “better” than formula feeding for cognitive development.
The study followed 7,478 Irish children who were born full-term. The study began when they were nine months old, and the kids took standardized tests to measure cognitive abilities at age three and age five. The breastfed kids scored a little bit higher, “But [the difference] wasn’t big enough to show statistical significance,” study author Lisa-Christine Girard, a child-development researcher at University College Dublin told NPR. “We weren’t able to find a direct causal link between breast-feeding and children’s cognitive outcomes.”
The study found that the kids who were breastfed for at least six months were less hyperactive and better problem solvers at age three, but the differences between the kids who breastfed and the kids who didn’t were negligible by age five.
Again — it wasn’t better. And why are we so stuck on what’s better, anyway? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could once and for all drop the “Breast is Best” mantra, so all women could be made to feel confident about their choices, rather than shamed for not making the “best” one? Wouldn’t it be great if there didn’t need to be a “better” choice?
Girard told NPR she wasn’t surprised by the findings. Why? Because there are so many other factors that influence a child’s cognitive development — like socio-economic status and maternal IQ and education level. “For example, mothers who breast-feed typically have higher levels of education,” Girard says. Those mothers are less prone to engage in risky behaviors while pregnant, like drinking or smoking. They are also more prone to have adequate prenatal care.
“I think [the study] fits well in the body of literature that long-term benefits of breastfeeding look a whole lot smaller or non-existent if you properly control for your confounding variables,” Dr. Brooke Orosz, a professor of mathematics at Essex County College and adviser to the organization Fed is Best, told CNN.
So what’s the big take away? There are so many other factors that contribute to why a child thrives — both physically and cognitively. Breastmilk can be a healthy, wonderful choice for a mother if she has the time, energy, support, and desire to breastfeed. But isn’t it also wonderful to learn that formula-fed babies thrive just as much?
From CNN:”The easy question — do kids who are breastfed have better outcomes? The answer is yes. The difficult question is: is it breast milk that improves their brain or is it that growing up with parents who are better educated and have better incomes makes a difference?”
What women need is support. What babies need is a stable foundation, love, and attention. If we can get to a place where we know that controlling for same variables, breastfed babies and formula fed babies thrive in the same way — wouldn’t that be the ultimate goal?