Children who were breastfed longer and more exclusively have higher IQ scores than children who were nursed for shorter lengths of time and given other foods for nourishment, say researchers from McGill University in Montreal.

In this new study, published in the May edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry, 1,400 children and their mothers were followed from birth to six and a half years of age.  Prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding was encouraged in half the mothers during their postpartum check-ups. The remaining half had regular postpartum care but extended breastfeeding was not promoted.

Researchers measured the effect of breastfeeding on cognitive development by having the children's pediatricians administer IQ tests. The children's school teachers were also asked to rate their reading, writing and math skills.

Mothers who were encouraged to breastfeed longer nursed their children exclusively for up to one year. The longer a child was breastfed the higher their IQ scores and school performance ratings.

This author of this study isn't sure why breastfeeding increases children's intelligence. Some scientists say certain components of breast milk - like omega-3 DHA - could play a role in brain development, others suggest that higher intelligence is related to the physical bonding that children experience during prolonged breastfeeding.

Previous studies support the idea that omega-3 fats in breast milk can brain development.  This is the largest study of breastfeeding ever conducted and dispels any doubts about the impact breastfeeding has on children's intelligence.   

Health Canada recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life followed by nutrient-rich formula and iron-fortified infant cereal.

To increase the amount of omega-3 DHA in their breast milk, women who preparing to nurse their baby can increase their intake of omega-3 fats during pregnancy by eating low-mercury oily fish like salmon, pollock, catfish and canned light tuna. 

For more information on other nutrients that are important during lactation, check out Leslie Beck's Nutrition Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy.

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.