The pros of breastfeeding can’t be overstated. Doing so has been shown to prevent SIDS, lessen your baby’s chances of developing high blood pressure or diabetes, and even reduce your risk for postpartum depression. And now, experts are ready to add one more big benefit to the list.
Children who are breastfed as babies exhibit greater cognitive development later in life, finds Boston Children’s Hospital research. In a study of over 2,000 mothers and their children, longer breastfeeding duration was associated with higher vocabulary, verbal, and nonverbal intelligence in children at ages 3 and 7.
Researchers aren’t exactly sure why breastfeeding might make baby smarter, but they have a few ideas. “There may be nutrients in breast milk that impact brain development that people haven’t learned enough about to start adding to formula. The other commonly cited theory is the interaction between mom and baby during breastfeeding,” says lead study author Mandy Belfort, M.D., M.P.H., Instructor of Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that babies should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life, and in combination with complementary foods until at least 12 months. Still, your decision to breastfeed alone won’t determine whether you end up with a baby Einstein, since each month of breastfeeding results in a gain of just 1/3 of an I.Q. point.
“There are many factors that go into whether a woman chooses to breastfeed, and having evidence about the benefits of breastfeeding for each additional month is important when deciding how to spend your time,” Belfort says.
And for women who do choose to breastfeed for any length of time, having support is crucial. That could mean talking with your employer about schedule flexibility or having a private place to pump, or talking to your healthcare provider about the breastfeeding insurance coverage you’re entitled to. Don’t let breastfeeding pain dissuade you from doing it either.
Bottom line: Breastfeeding really can boost your baby’s brain power, but the effects are small, and formula is still a perfectly good alternative. Ultimately, “you need to make your own informed choice,” says Belfort. Maybe—but how much?