Breastfeeding doesn’t just give nourishment to infants; it also provides a wonderful bonding experience between mother and child. And babies get other benefits from breast milk, like the prevention of health risks, thanks to the antibodies passed from mother to child which boost the child’s immune system.
However, a study debunks an idea that was previously believed — that breastfeeding gives children long-term cognitive development and behavior benefits. As it turns out, breast milk may only provide short-term brain boosts.
“We didn’t find any statistically significant difference between children who were breastfed and those who weren’t in terms of their cognitive ability and language,” study author Lisa-Christine Girard told the Independent.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, followed 7,478 full-term-born Irish children from when they were nine months of age to five years old. Their parents had to fill out questionnaires to evaluate their children’s vocabulary and problem-solving skills that determined cognitive development and behavior.
When the children reached ages three and five, both parents and teachers were quizzed with the same questions. Research found that the children who were breastfed for six months did show lower rates of hyperactivity and better problem solving skills by age three. However, when the children turned five, those differences dissipated.
“We did find direct effect of breastfeeding on a reduction in hyperactive behaviours when the children were three years old,” said Girard. “This wasn’t found at five years, suggesting there may be other factors that are more influential as children develop.”
Some experts point to the fact that socio-economic status, including education and income of the mother, should also be considered when accounting for differences between children who were breastfed and those who were not. Children who were born to more educated families, and who had better financial situations, also reported higher problem-solving and vocabulary skills during the study. Statistically, these were also the same women who were more apt to breastfeed. Girard believes that these factors may have influenced the previous research on breastfeeding and its believed long-term benefits.
“There’s a certain profile of mothers in developed countries who engage in breastfeeding behaviour,” added Girard. “So it’s important to tease that apart and understand the direct link, if there is one.”
New Jersey Essex County College math professor Dr. Brooke Orosz, who was not involved in the study, also agreed with the new findings. “The long-term benefits of breastfeeding look a whole lot smaller or non-existent if you properly control for your confounding variables,” she said.
Related: Are First-Born Children Smarter?
So the question remains: to breastfeed or not to breastfeed? The answer is simple. Mothers should do what is right for themselves, their child and ultimately their family. There are obvious benefits for the child and for mom — breastfeeding aids in helping new mothers burn between 300 and 500 calories a day. But women should not succumb to mom shaming or peer pressure from other parents. Experts agree that it’s most important to foster and forge a healthy connection between mother and child.
International board certified lactation consultant Nancy Hurst says, “You need to just enjoy the relationship — that is most important to nurture the mother-baby relationship. Even if at times that doesn’t mean exclusive breastfeeding.”