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by Dr. Daniel J. Heller
Children who are breastfed longer have better language skills and higher intelligence later in life, according to a new study. This Harvard Medical School study followed more than 1,300 mothers and their children over a period of seven years.
The study, published in the July 2013 JAMA Pediatrics, showed that three-year-olds who had been breastfed for longer periods had higher receptive language skills. Four years later, at age seven, these same children also had higher IQ scores than children who had received less breastfeeding.
Dr. Mandy Brown Belfort, the study’s lead author and a neonatologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told the New York Times that researchers don’t yet know why additional breastfeeding benefits children’s cognitive development. But one theory, she said, is that the nutrients found in breast milk may help with a baby’s brain development.
Belfort said the study results support the idea that breastfeeding for longer than is often recommended by most doctors and medical authorities appears to have distinct advantages for children. She acknowledged that the decision to breastfeed can be difficult for working moms. However, each additional month of breastfeeding gives babies extra benefits, she said.
Previous studies have shown that breastfeeding has other advantages for babies. In addition to the cognitive benefits, research has shown that breastfeeding is linked to a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, asthma, allergies, and other health problems. Breast milk is almost always easier for babies to digest than cow’s milk, which, of course, is an ideal food for baby cows.
Breastfeeding mothers may also benefit. There is research suggesting that breastfeeding moms have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and even postpartum depression.
Recommendations vary for how long a mother should breastfeed, but many health organizations recommend children be breastfed for at least 12 months.
The Harvard study also showed that the children of women who ate two or more servings of fish every week had higher visual motor ability than those children whose mothers ate less than two servings.
If you have more questions on breastfeeding and its effects on you and the health of your baby, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fact sheet on breastfeedingor the United States chapter of the international group that promotes breastfeeding, La Leche League USA.