Increased breast-feeding during the first months of life appears to raise a child’s verbal IQ, according to a study of nearly 14,000 children released Monday.
The study in Archives of General Psychiatry found that 6-year-olds whose mothers were part of a program that encouraged them to breast-feed had a verbal IQ that was 7.5 points higher than children in a control group.
The researchers said their findings suggested that the longer an infant is fed exclusively breast milk, the greater the IQ improvement.
The results echo smaller previous studies that found children and adults who were breast-fed tend to have higher IQs than whose who were not.
Lead author Dr. Michael Kramer, a professor of pediatrics at McGill University in Montreal, said the IQ improvements were modest and might not be noticeable on an individual basis. But he added that the increase could have a significant effect on society as a whole.
“We’re not talking about making a child who has trouble in school and is dropping out into a genius,” he said. “But if we can increase IQ by three to four points in the whole population we can have fewer children at the low end and more Einsteins at the high end.”
The latest study tracked breast-fed infants born between June 1996 and December 1997 in Belarus. Half the infants and mothers were assigned to an experimental program designed to promote breast-feeding while the remaining infants and mothers received regular pediatric and follow-up medical care.
The breast-feeding program included increased counseling and instruction when women visited doctors or clinics
All children in the study were interviewed and examined between 2002 and 2005, when the children were an average of 6.5 years old. The children’s academic performance also was evaluated by their teachers.
Besides the improvement in their verbal IQ scores, children in the experimental group scored an average of 4.9 points higher on tests that specifically measured vocabulary.
Kramer said that more research was needed to determine if the benefits were related to a component of breast milk or to the physical and social interaction between mother and child that is inherent in breast-feeding.