For years, parents and health care providers have speculated that breastfed babies turn out smarter. But with so many variables at play—maternal IQ, socioeconomic status, differences in parenting style or interactions, and more—it has been a difficult hypothesis to prove. Parents who might wish to give their children an academic edge haven’t gotten a firm answer on whether breastfeeding will help.
Some studies have found an association between breastfeeding and higher IQ later in life. One example is a large-scale cluster-randomized study by Dr. Michael S. Kramer and colleagues, published in the May 2008 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. Researchers discovered differences in both verbal and nonverbal IQ scores for children who had been breastfed compared with their formula-fed peers. The differences were linked to exclusivity as well as duration of breastfeeding.
More recently, in 2015, a systematic review of 17 studies on breastfeeding and IQ concluded that breastfeeding “is related to improved performance in intelligence tests” and that it has a “positive effect … on cognition.” Analysis revealed that in studies controlling for the mother’s IQ, the effect of breastfeeding was lower, but it still existed. Similarly, a 2018 meta-analysis supported a link between breastfeeding and cognitive development.
Other studies, though, have shown no significant association between breastfeeding and children’s IQ scores later in life. For example, a study by Dr. Catherine Gale and colleagues found no link between children’s intelligence and whether they were breastfed, fed formula fortified with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), or fed unfortified formula during infancy. Gale and colleagues concluded that the factors that most influenced brain development were a mother’s intelligence and the level of mental stimulation children received.
Some researchers have delved into the question of how breastfeeding could be beneficial for babies’ later IQ and academic performance—if indeed it is.
Whether the benefit might occur through an ingredient in human milk such as DHA, the act of breastfeeding itself, or a combination of the two remains unclear.
Although no definitive answer exists on whether breastfeeding will have an effect on your child’s intelligence, it’s been proven to make both babies and mothers healthier, and it’s economical as well. So breastfeeding remains the smart thing to do.
To learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding, read this.