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Does Breastfeeding Boost your Baby’s IQ?

There have been many studies over many years that conclude that breastfed babies generally have a slightly higher IQ than formula fed babies.

From research observations first reported 70 years ago by Carolyn Hoefer and Mattie Hardy in The Journal of the American Medical Association, to the Christchurch School of Medicine in New Zealand study of over 1,000 children born in 1977 and studied until they were 18, to Dr Kramer’s study of 17, 046 infants in Belarus published in the May issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry 2008, to epidemiologist Wieslaw Jedrychowski recent study of babies born to nonsmoking mothers, that was published in the May 2011 issue of the European Journal of Pediatrics.

But, what are the reasons? Does breastfeeding boost your baby’s IQ? Some studies scoff that is has nothing to do with breastfeeding, but rather that mothers who elect to breastfeed tend to be better educated, of higher intelligence themselves, be in a two-parent family, not smoke during pregnancy, and are more child-centered, therefore, it has nothing to do with breastfeeding but genetics and environment.

But, other scientific evidence would suggest that this is not just the case and that there are many qualities to breast milk that explain why it is ideal for brain development. One key quality is a brain-boosting fat called DHA (docasahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid. DHA is a vital nutrient for growth, development, and maintenance of brain tissue. You can now (only recently) buy formulas made in the United States that contain DHA.

Another fat needed for optimal brain development is cholesterol. Breast milk contains a lot of cholesterol, while infant formulas currently contain none. Cholesterol is important for building basic nerve tissue in the growing brain. DHA, cholesterol, and other breast milk fats provide the perfect environment for manufacturing myelin, the fatty sheath that surrounds nerve fibers. (Myelin acts as insulation, making it possible for nerves to carry information from one part of the brain or body to another.) These brain-building fats are so vital, that if the mother’s diet doesn’t provide enough of them for her milk, her body will automatically make them.

Lactose is also important and the main sugar in breast milk. The body breaks it down into two simpler sugars – glucose and galactose. Galactose is the valuable nutrient for brain tissue development. Anthropologists have demonstrated that the more intelligent species of mammals the greater amounts of lactose in their milk!

It may not just be dietary. It could also be argued that the physical and psychological interaction that breastfeeding provides stimulates cognitive development and does indeed help boost your baby’s IQ. “An infant suckling at his or her mother’s breast is not simply receiving a meal, but is intensely engaged in a dynamic, bidirectional, biological dialogue. It is the physical and psychological bonding and interaction between infant and mother during breastfeeding that nurtures development of an infant’s cognitive abilities.” – Tonse Raju, pediatrician and neonatologist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, October 2011.

Mothers who cannot breastfeed should find solace in this perspective. The missing ingredient may not just be in the breast milk itself, but the nurturing delivery breastfeeding promotes. This physical and emotional dialogue between mother and child, cannot be replicated by a bottle. However, you can bottle feed skin to skin and snuggle with your baby in a loving and stimulating way to help promote brain wave and neuro development. If you have a choice – breast is best, but if it is not an option, you still have a choice how you deliver the feeding.

Image Credit: Emma Whitney Photography

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