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Study: Parents’ educational and income levels (not breastfeeding per se) account for the brain development gains in breastfed children

Study shows no long-term cog­ni­tive ben­e­fit to breast­feed­ing (CNN):

While the med­ical ben­e­fits of breast­feed­ing for help­ing new­borns fight infec­tions and help­ing pre-term infants get stronger are fair­ly well estab­lished, the long-term impact is much less so…a new study pub­lished in the jour­nal Pedi­atrics finds that breast­feed­ing has lit­tle impact on long-term cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment and behav­ior.

While the researchers found that those chil­dren who were breast­fed for six months or more had low­er rates of hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty and improved prob­lem-solv­ing skills at three, those dif­fer­ences were neg­li­gi­ble by the time the child turned five…Like many oth­er breast­feed­ing stud­ies, long-term ben­e­fits have been asso­ci­at­ed with breast­feed­ing, but once socio-eco­nom­ic fac­tors such as edu­ca­tion and income are account­ed for, the dif­fer­ences between those chil­dren who were breast­fed and those who weren’t are neg­li­gi­ble.

The easy ques­tion — do kids who are breast­fed have bet­ter out­comes? The answer is yes. The dif­fi­cult ques­tion is: is it breast milk that improves their brain or is it that grow­ing up with par­ents who are bet­ter edu­cat­ed and have bet­ter incomes makes a dif­fer­ence?”

The Study:

Breast­feed­ing, Cog­ni­tive and Noncog­ni­tive Devel­op­ment in Ear­ly Child­hood: A Pop­u­la­tion Study (Pedi­atrics). From the abstract:

  • BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: There is mixed evi­dence from cor­re­la­tion­al stud­ies that breast­feed­ing impacts children’s devel­op­ment. Propen­si­ty score match­ing with large sam­ples can be an effec­tive tool to remove poten­tial bias from observed con­founders in cor­re­la­tion­al stud­ies. The aim of this study was to inves­ti­gate the impact of breast­feed­ing on children’s cog­ni­tive and noncog­ni­tive devel­op­ment at 3 and 5 years of age.
  • METHODS: Par­tic­i­pants includ­ed ?8000 fam­i­lies from the Grow­ing Up in Ire­land lon­gi­tu­di­nal infant cohort, who were iden­ti­fied from the Child Ben­e­fit Reg­is­ter and ran­dom­ly select­ed to par­tic­i­pate. Par­ent and teacher reports and stan­dard­ized assess­ments were used to col­lect infor­ma­tion on children’s prob­lem behav­iors, expres­sive vocab­u­lary, and cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties at age 3 and 5 years. Breast­feed­ing infor­ma­tion was col­lect­ed via mater­nal report. Propen­si­ty score match­ing was used to com­pare the aver­age treat­ment effects on those who were breast­fed.
  • RESULTS: Before match­ing, breast­feed­ing was asso­ci­at­ed with bet­ter devel­op­ment on almost every out­come. After match­ing and adjust­ment for mul­ti­ple test­ing, only 1 of the 13 out­comes remained sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant: children’s hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty (dif­fer­ence score, –0.84; 95% con­fi­dence inter­val, –1.33 to –0.35) at age 3 years for chil­dren who were breast­fed for at least 6 months. No sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences were observed post­match­ing on any out­come at age 5 years.
  • CONCLUSIONS: Although 1 pos­i­tive ben­e­fit of breast­feed­ing was found by using propen­si­ty score match­ing, the effect size was mod­est in prac­ti­cal terms. No sup­port was found for sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant gains at age 5 years, sug­gest­ing that the ear­li­er observed ben­e­fit from breast­feed­ing may not be main­tained once chil­dren enter school.

To learn more about lifelong brain development:

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