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Has a Breastfeeding Benefit Been Overhyped?

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The benefits of breastfeeding are indisputable. But new research calls into question the impact of nursing on a child's long-term cognitive abilities

The study, "Breastfeeding, Cognitive and Noncognitive Development in Early Childhood: A Population Study," which is published in the April 2017 issue of Pediatrics, looked at 8,000 families from the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal infant cohort. Researchers used parent and teacher reports and standardized assessments to understand kids' problem behaviors, expressive vocabulary, and cognitive abilities at 3 and 5 years of age. Breastfeeding information was reported by the moms.

Previous studies have found a link between breastfeeding for a minimum of six months and better problem-solving at age 3. However, in this new study, researchers determined that by 5 years old, there was no statistically significant difference in cognitive abilities between those children who were breastfed and those who were not.

It's important to note this study has its limitations—namely, that it could not account for multiple other factors that contribute to kids' cognitive abilities.

Further, the study does not change the AAP's recommendation that moms should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months and continue to breastfeed to 1 year and beyond as foods are also introduced. And in an accompanying commentary to this study, "Breastfeeding: What Do We Know, and Where Do We Go From Here?," Lydia Furman, M.D., emphasizes the many benefits of breastfeeding, including that it is proven to reduce "all-cause and infection-related child mortality, sudden infant death syndrome-related mortality, and maternal breast cancer and cardiovascular risk."

But, Dr. Furman writes, the study also is "a thoughtful contribution to the breastfeeding literature and essentially found no effect of breastfeeding on cognitive ability."

Study author Lisa-Christine Girard, Ph.D., Marie-Curie Research Fellow at University College Dublin, told Parents.com, "The belief that babies who are breastfed have advantages in their cognitive development, in particular, has been a topic of debate for over a century now. What needs to be emphasized here is the notion of causality. Babies who are breastfed do tend to score higher on measures of their cognitive ability over time, yet this may, in large part, be the result of other factors that are associated with maternal selection into breastfeeding."

She added, "Our results would suggest that breastfeeding per se, may not be the causal factor responsible for 'smarter kids,' although it may be associated via maternal characteristics."

The takeaway for parents? Dr. Girard says, "For mothers who are able, breastfeeding provides a wealth of documented benefits to both mother and babies, and it is important to emphasize that our findings, regarding cognitive development in particular, in no way take away from that. Further, our findings in themselves demonstrate direct benefits of breastfeeding on reduced hyperactivity in early childhood, albeit the effect is small and appears short-lived."

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and soon-to-be mom of 4. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of yoga.

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