Breast-feeding boosts brainpower? What new study says

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(CBS) Breast-feeding has been linked to all kinds of health benefits for kids, but does it boost their brainpower? New research from England shows that children who were breast-fed as babies score higher on intelligence tests than their bottle-fed counterparts.

For a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers used vocabulary and pattern-recognition tests to assess the cognitive development of about 12,000 five-year-olds, including some who had been born prematurely.

They found that at least among white English singletons (children born without twins or other multiples), the longer a child is breast-fed, the better his/her cognitive development.The effect was particularly strong for children who had been born prematurely.

"These differences suggest that breast-fed children will be one to six months ahead of children who were never breast-fed," concluded the authors of the study.

Does the study actually prove that breast-feeding boosts kids' cognition? Not quite. But the researchers offered some theories to explain why that might be true.

"There are essential fatty acids in breast milk which are good for cell development and brain development in particular," study author Dr. Amanda Sacker, a research professor at the University of Essex, told Reuters. Another possibility is that infant formula is lacking in hormones and growth factors that boost cognitive development.

Or there could be some simple social explanation.

"Perhaps children who are breastfed get cuddled more, and this confers some sort of advantage to them as well," she said.

Whether breast is best for kids' brains, there's wide agreement that breast-feeding has myriad health benefits for mother and child. In a call to action to support breast-feeding issued in January, the U.S. surgeon general said breast-feeding protects babies from diarrhea, pneumonia, and other infections as well as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and subsequent obesity. In addition, moms who breast-feed are less likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer.

Does all this suggest that moms who fail to breast-feed their kids are doing them a disservice? Breast-feeding expert Janet Fyle, of the Royal College of Midwives,told CBS News in May that "We must not send a negative message to mothers that they have failed, or make them feel guilty because they bottle-feed their babies."

What do you think? Are bottle-feeding moms doing a bad thing?

  • David W Freeman

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