Exclusive breast-feeding boosts IQ of small babies

March 26, 2002 in Nutrition Topics in the News, Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Exclusive breast-feeding boosts IQ of small babies

Breast-feeding exclusively for the first 6 months of life may boost the IQ of full-term infants weighing less than 6 pounds, new study findings from National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland suggest.

Small infants who received only breast milk for the first 6 months of life scored an average of 11 points higher on IQ tests at age 5 than infants who received formula and solid food in addition to breast milk.

These findings add spark to the debate over whether breast-feeding improves a child's mental development. The findings also refute the notion that small babies will grow faster if they receive some formula and solid food from early on.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women breast-feed their infants exclusively for the first 6 months of life, and continue to breast-feed for the first year of life. But according to the report, only 16% of women in the US breast-feed exclusively for 6 months.

In the study, doctors examined 220 full-term infants born at 37 weeks gestation or more who weighed less than 6 pounds, and 229 full-term infants weighing at least 6 pounds, at 6 weeks of age and again at 3, 6, 9 and 13 months of age. During the final physical examination, the infants took a test to measure motor skills and mental abilities and at 5 years, children took a standardized intelligence test.

Small infants breast-fed exclusively for 12 weeks scored over 3 points higher than their supplemented peers on intelligence tests at 13 months of age. The effect of breast milk on intellectual development was found to rise in tandem with the length of breast-feeding for up to 6 months. The effect of breast milk was stronger on performance IQ, or non-verbal problem solving skills such as analyzing a picture or solving a puzzle, than on verbal IQ, which reflects a child's vocabulary and verbal reasoning skills.

Breast milk also improved the IQ scores of normal-size infants, although the magnitude was much smaller. By the age of 5, children who received only breast milk for the first 6 months of life scored an average of 3 points higher on tests than their peers who received supplemental foods, a finding that is consistent with the results of other studies examining the relationship between breast-feeding and intelligence in normal-size infants.

It is not clear whether the benefits of breast-feeding come from some component in breast milk or from environmental factors.

In general, women who breast-feed have been shown to have more education and income than women who give formula to their infants and may therefore provide a more stimulating intellectual environment.

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