Are Breastfed Babies Smarter?

Children who were breastfed outscored their formula-fed classmates.

ByABC News
December 17, 2010, 12:25 PM

Dec. 20, 2010— -- From flashcards to DVDs, the list of products touted as baby brain boosters is ever-growing. But new research that suggests breastfeeding can significantly improve academic achievement later in life is offering food for thought on the impact of neonatal nutrition.

The benefits of breastfeeding for newborns and new moms alike are many. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breast milk is loaded with nutrients that help babies grow and antibodies that stave off infections. Breastfeeding is also thought to protect against chronic diseases such as diabetes (type 1 and 2), obesity and asthma and may even ward off certain cancers such as leukemia.

Breastfeeding moms also tend to recover from their deliveries faster, shed their pregnancy weight sooner and have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Because of the perks for moms and tots, the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life, and continuing to age two or beyond with appropriate complementary foods.

But can breastfeeding actually make babies smarter?

According to the results of an Australian study published in Pediatrics, children who were breastfed for six months or more outscored their formula-fed classmates in tests of reading, writing and math at age 10. However, the benefits were gender-specific, with only boys achieving significantly higher test scores for reasons that remain unclear.

"Our results suggest that breastfeeding duration is independently associated with better educational outcomes in middle childhood, especially for boys," reported Wendy H. Oddy, associate professor at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research and University of Western Australia, and colleagues.

Several studies have previously linked breastfeeding to later intelligence. But how breastfeeding confers its brainy benefits remains unclear. Researchers suspect that components of breast milk that may be missing from formula, such as the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid arachidonic acid (ARA), are essential for optimal brain growth.