This is just another piece of scientific proof of the wonders of breastfeeding. Its benefits for gut development and immunity have been widely reported, but studies looking at breastfeeding’s effects on brain development have so far been poorly designed, showing only weak positive effects.
The new research shows breastfeeding leads to improved language receptiveness at age three. And higher verbal and non-verbal IQ at school age.
This is a well-designed observational study and the latest in a line of countless other studies showing benefits for the “long-term” breastfed baby, compared to formula feeding or short-term breastfeeding.
And it’s a vast improvement on previous studies because the authors have adjusted their results for factors that are known to influence child intelligence. Maternal intelligence, for instance, and the developmental stimulation received in the home environment. In other words, the authors have independently examined the effects of breastfeeding on child intelligence.
The study didn’t simply compare babies who were “ever” breastfed to those who were “never” breastfed. The author asked whether babies were being breastfed at six months and 12 months, thereby accounting for the effects of partial versus exclusive breastfeeding.
At age three, the children had a 0.58-point increase in language comprehension (listening and understanding what is communicated) tests for every additional month of breastfeeding.
By the age of seven, every additional month of breastfeeding resulted in a 0.35-point increase in verbal intelligence (ability to analyse information and solve problems using language-based reasoning) score and a 0.29-point increase in non-verbal intelligence (ability to analyse information and solve problems using visual, or hands-on reasoning) score.
It may seem obvious that providing our young with the nutrition that has evolved over thousands of years to support their growth and development will result in greater brain function, immune function, and so on.
But studies like these are important because the majority of the population is not heeding their results. In the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics Report (2003) – 87 per cent of infants were breastfed at birth, but this had fallen to 48 per cent six months later and 23 per cent by the time they were a year old.
The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and for it to continue until at least 12 months.
The World Health Organization also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for up to six months and for it to continue alongside appropriate complementary foods until the child is two years old and beyond.
Our closest genetic relatives, primates (apes and chimpanzees), spend about 12 per cent of their lifespan breastfeeding their young. That’s around four and a half years. If we spent the same proportion of our time breastfeeding, we would do so for nine years!
The average time we spend breastfeeding now is one year or about 1.5 per cent of lifespan, which is comparable to what rodents do, even though their brains are significantly less evolved than ours.
One of the reasons women may not be breastfeeding for very long (even though they physically can) is because it is stigmatised. Breastfeeding is discouraged in some public places and some mothers fear the nosey citizen offended by the sight of it, who decides to comment.
Perhaps it’s time to replace television advertisements for infant formula with a national advertising campaign showing women breastfeeding to “normalise” the natural way to feed babies and toddlers.
Breastfeeding represents an incredible opportunity for the human brain (and the body, in general) to reach its full potential. Let’s give our young the best start in life that we can.
Dr Hayley Dickinson is a research scientist within the field of fetal and neonatal physiology, at The Ritchie Centre, Monash Institute of Medical Research, Monash University.
This article first appeared in The Conversation.