Nursing For Intelligence | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 16.05.2002
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Nursing For Intelligence

A new study confirms what experts have been saying for years: breastfeeding makes babies smarter and healthier.


Mother's milk makes babies content - and smart!

The longer an infant is breastfed, the higher they are likely to score on intelligence tests as adults, according to a Danish study.

Author Dr Erik Mortensen of Copenhagen University Hospital said his research showed "a robust association between the duration of breastfeeding and adult intelligence".

"The nutrients in breast milk, behavioral factors, and factors associated with choice of feeding method may all contribute to the positive association," he wrote in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

IQ tests done on more than 3,000 people born between 1959 and 1961 showed that being breastfed for up to nine months conferred a long-lasting intellectual benefit.

Nursing beyond this time period, however, actually had a detrimental effect on mean IQ scores. But the researchers concluded only that there was no additional positive effect.

Mother’s milk is the best

Breastfeeding is known to play an important role in development by providing various nutrients and antibodies that might not be present in infant formula or cow's milk. Previous studies on young children already showed an association between breastfeeding and cognitive development in early and middle childhood.

In the latest study of adults, those who were breastfed less than one month as infants scored a mean of 99.4 on an IQ test, with progressively higher scores correlating to the longer duration of breastfeeding. Those breastfed between seven and nine months scored a mean 106 on the test. After nine months of breastfeeding, adult scores dipped to 104.

It is not clear which nutrients may play a role, but human milk contains docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid. These are fatty acids that seem to be important in brain development.

Breastfeeding goes political

For hundreds of years, the topic of nursing was a taboo in western societies. Opinions and advice about what and how mothers fed their babies were considered to be both too medical and too personal to be ventured forth by anyone but doctors, nurses, nutritionists, or one's parents.

But during the 1970s, how to feed young babies became a political issue. Everyone from Catholic nuns to political editorial writers, farmers and corporation executives began sharing their opinions about the health, economic, and moral problems concerning what mothers from all over the world feed their babies.

Despite the mass of information available, many women in industrialized nations still do not breastfeed or only do so for a short period of time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies should get nothing but breast milk for six months, and advises women to breastfeed to some extent for a full year. And yet only 29 percent of US mothers are still breastfeeding at six months, said Dr Lawrence Gartner, the breastfeeding expert at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"Nevertheless, that is up from five years ago, when it was only 21 percent," Gartner told Reuters. Fewer than 10 percent of mothers are still breastfeeding after a year.

He attributes this to cultural reasons. "In some parts of our society, we really don't have good support and understanding of the importance of breastfeeding."

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