Breastfeeding aids cognitive development

17 March 2011

Research using Millennium Cohort Study data has shown that breastfeeding leads not only to healthier babies, but also brighter children.

Breastfeeding leads not only to healthier babies but also brighter children, according to a working paper from the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). As little as four weeks of breastfeeding for a new-born infant has a “positive and significant effect” on brain development, the research finds, right up to secondary school and beyond.

Children who had been breastfed consistently outperformed their formula-fed peers at ages five, seven, 11 and 14 in tests of reading, writing and mathematics, according to the ISER Working Paper produced by Maria Iacovou at ISER and Almudena Sevilla from the University of Oxford.

The NHS already recommends that babies should be breastfed rather than given formula for their first six months, but Britain has one of the world’s lowest rates of breastfeeding. Only 35% of UK infants are exclusively breastfed at one week old, 21% at six weeks, 7% at four months and just 3% at six months.

Maria Iacovou explained that while the health benefits of breast milk were widely known and understood, it had been less clear to what extent there were benefits for cognitive development. She said:

“The issue was that while it looked as though breastfeeding did have an impact on cognitive development, no one knew if that was just because the type of mother more likely to breastfeed in the first place was more likely to nurture brighter children, or whether there was a true causal link,” she said.

The ISER study – a working paper that will be peer-reviewed at a later date – compared breastmilk-fed children with formula-fed “twins”, children who were equivalent in all other observable respects.

“We did find there is a link between breast milk and cognitive development. Breast milk has well-known health benefits and now we can say there are clear benefits for children’s brains as well.”

The research is part of a wide-ranging Breastfeeding research project at ISER, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.  The results were welcomed by the Royal College of Midwives which said that, while it was interesting and further proof of the benefits of breastfeeding, there were several reasons behind the popularity of bottle-feeding infants in the UK, which had a long way to go in normalising breastfeeding in the way other countries had done.

IACOVOU, M. and SEVILLA SANZ, A. (2010) The Effect of Breastfeeding on Children's Cognitive Development.  ISER Working Paper 20010-40. Colchester: ISER, University of Essex