There are plenty of very good reasons for moms to breastfeed their babies if they’re able to, but longterm cognitive gains may not be one of them.
A new study, published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, found that children who were breastfed until they were at least 6 months old seemed to be less hyperactive at age 3. But by the time they turned 5, those differences had disappeared.
And after the researchers adjusted for socio-economic variables, there were only negligible differences between preschoolers who were breastfed and those who were not in terms of their vocabulary and problem-solving skills.
“We weren’t able to find a direct causal link between breastfeeding and children’s cognitive outcomes,” study author Lisa-Christine Girard, a researcher at University College Dublin, told NPR.
Girard and her co-authors collected data on roughly 8,000 children in Ireland ― born full-term ― when they were 9 months, 3 years old and 5 years old. They looked at tests measuring vocabulary and cognitive skills, as well as parental and teacher assessment of children’s “problem behaviors.”
Of course, the new study does have some limitations. Breastfeeding was broken into big time bands ― so babies who were breastfed between 32 and 180 days were looped into one large group, for example. That means that babies with potentially very different feeding experiences were analyzed together, which may “dilute the impact” of longer periods of breastfeeding, Dr. Lydia Furman, a pediatrician with Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine wrote in an editorial accompanying the findings.
Furman acknowledged that the topic of breastfeeding’s potential effects on cognitive abilities is controversial, but called the study “a thoughtful contribution to the breastfeeding literature.”
The findings will not alter recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their life, and then continue for a year or beyond ― after all, a baby’s potential IQ is not the reason doctors stick by that recommendation. But, this study will likely come as a relief to mothers who face challenges breastfeeding and worry about the effects on their children’s brains in the long run.