Breastfeeding linked to higher IQ and success in later life, study finds

Children who are breast-fed for longer go on to become more intelligent, educated and successful adults, a study has found. Researchers analysed breastfeeding data on almost 3,500 babies who were given IQ tests when they reached the age of 30 and provided information on educational attainment and income. Breastfeeding generally was found to increase adult intelligence, length of schooling and adult earnings. But the longer a child was breastfed, up to a period of one year, the greater the benefits turned out to be.

Our study provides the first evidence that prolonged breastfeeding not only increases intelligence until at least the age of 30 years but also has an impact both at an individual and societal level by improving educational attainment and earning ability.

Dr Bernardo Lessa Horta, from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil

Participants were divided into five groups based on the length of time they were breastfed as infants. The researchers took account of factors that might influence IQ, such as genetics, birthweight, parental schooling and whether or not the mother smoked during pregnancy. Someone who had been breastfed for at least a year gained four more IQ points, on average, at the age of 30 than a person who had been breastfed for less than a month. He or she also had 0.9 more years of schooling and earnings that were higher by a third of the average income. Dr Horta added: “The likely mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of breast milk on intelligence is the presence of long-chain saturated fatty acids (DHAs) found in breast milk, which are essential for brain development.”

It is important to note that breastfeeding is one of many factors that can contribute to a child’s outcomes, however this study emphasises the need for continued and enhanced breastfeeding promotion so expectant mothers are aware of the benefits of breastfeeding.

Dr Colin Michie, chairman of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s nutrition committee