Is breastfed babies smarter?

Breastfeeding is recommended by most health organizations, but it’s not always possible. If you choose to feed your baby with formula, there is no evidence that it will negatively affect their long-term intelligence.


The idea that breastfed babies are “smarter” is a topic that has been studied and debated in scientific literature. Some studies have suggested a modest correlation between breastfeeding and slightly higher cognitive scores in childhood, but it’s important to approach these findings with nuance.

A common gene may explain why some breastfed babies outperform bottle-fed peers in intelligence tests. Children with a specific variant in the FADS2 gene seem to get the most benefit from breastfeeding.

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Laughing baby wrapped in the towel lying on the bed

1. Breast milk is full of long-chain 

Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA), such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA), are essential for brain and vision development in newborns. Standard infant formula does not contain these LCPUFA and instead relies on infants to synthesise them from alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid which are abundant in breast milk. Consequently, some manufacturers have started to enrich their formulas with DHA and AA.

A recent study found that the LCPUFAs in breast milk, in particular AA and DHA, are significantly associated with an infant’s temperament, particularly in terms of negative affectivity (a component of fear reactivity and autonomic stability) on the Infant Behavioral Questionnaire-Revised (IBQ-R). This association remains after accounting for other variables including maternal age, marital status, and infant birth weight.

The composition of the LCPUFAs in breast milk is also influenced by the mother’s diet, which is typically high in n-6 LCPUFA and low in n-3 LCPUFA. Interestingly, a high DHA content in breast milk was also found to be associated with lower blood pressure (BP) in children at 12 years of age, perhaps through its incorporation into endothelial cells and effects on the balance between sympathetic and parasympatic control of BP.

2. Breast milk is full of protein

Breast milk has a nearly perfect mix of proteins and vitamins. It has antibodies, good bacteria, and other things that reduce your baby’s risk of illnesses, like gastroenteritis and ear infections, and conditions like sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), type-1 diabetes, and obesity as they grow.

Protein is important because it helps your baby’s immune system and cell growth. It’s also needed to metabolize some vitamins. And it’s needed to make docosahexanoic acid (DHA), an essential fatty acid that your baby’s brain uses to manufacture the sheath that insulates nerve fibers.

Compared to formula, breast milk has more protein. But what really sets it apart is the quality of the protein, which is more easily digested by your baby’s body than protein in formula. The amino acids in breast milk are also more stable over time than the proteins in formula. The amino acid content of colostrum is highest, declines during the first two weeks after birth, and then stabilizes.

3. Breast milk is full of vitamins

Besides the basic ingredients of fats, proteins carbohydrates, and water to keep your infant hydrated, breast milk contains many important vitamins and minerals. These include over 1,000 proteins that help your baby grow, activate her immune system, and develop and protect neurons in the brain. It also has over 200 complex sugars (oligosaccharides) that act as prebiotics, feeding ‘good bacteria’ in the gut. It is easier to digest than cow’s milk or formula and it helps prevent constipation and diarrhea.

Breastfed babies have lower rates of SIDS than infants fed with formula. They may also grow more quickly and have less chance of obesity later in life. They may also get sick less often and have fewer allergies as adults.

Breast milk changes during each breastfeeding session, adding more or reducing the amount of nutrients it contains. This means your breasts are providing your baby with a unique, custom-made diet that cannot be replicated in a laboratory. It is best to exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months of your infant’s life. This will ensure that you are providing your baby with all of the essential nutrients he needs for optimal development.

4. Breast milk is full of minerals

During lactation, breasts produce and release minerals for baby to use. These minerals include calcium, phosphorus, sodium and iron. They also contain oligosaccharides to improve digestive function, and the immunoprotective components that help to strengthen a newborn’s immune system.

Studies show that babies who are exclusively breastfed have higher IQs than formula fed infants. Colostrum and mature breast milk contain antibodies, good bacteria and other things that reduce a baby’s risk of infections like gastroenteritis, respiratory illnesses, ear infections, and diseases such as obesity, type 1 diabetes, and some cancers.

The calcium and phosphate in breast milk are important for baby’s bone development. They are absorbed by a special mechanism called PTHrP, which moves the calcium and phosphorus from the mother’s bones to her nursing infant to promote healthy growth and development. The calcium in breast milk is more readily absorbed than the calcium found in cow’s milk. Mineral content in breast milk varies according to the mother’s dietary habits, birth sex, and the length of her lactation. The levels of iron, zinc, and copper in breast milk are quite variable but tend to be lower than those in cow’s milk.

5. Breast milk is full of fluid

There is a reason people say “breast is best.” From reduced ear infections and lower risk for asthma to a bump in IQ, breastfeeding has many health benefits for both mom and baby.

Both colostrum and mature breast milk contain living white cells that kill bacteria and produce antibodies, which helps reduce a baby’s chances of getting sick. Babies who are breastfed get fewer digestive, lung, and ear infections and are less likely to be hospitalized for respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, viral infections (RSV, influenza, and whooping cough), and serious intestinal diseases such as necrotizing enterocolitis.

Breastfed babies also grow and develop faster. They have a healthier weight and are less likely to be obese later in life, which is associated with increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Breastfeeding also provides a healthy, convenient food source for infants when traveling away from home or during disasters or emergencies when power and clean water may be unavailable. It’s important to talk to a healthcare provider and/or lactation consultant about your plans for breastfeeding your child.

Conclusion

The question of whether breastfed babies are smarter is a complex and debated topic in the field of child development and nutrition. Research on this topic has yielded mixed results, and it’s essential to understand that intelligence is influenced by a wide range of genetic, environmental, and social factors.Breastfeeding provides many health benefits for both infants and mothers, and it is an essential source of nutrition and immune support. However, its specific impact on cognitive development is still a subject of ongoing research and debate. Parents should make infant feeding choices based on a combination of factors, including their individual circumstances and preferences, and consult with healthcare professionals for guidance on what is best for their child. Ultimately, a loving and nurturing environment, responsive parenting, and access to quality education are among the most important factors in a child’s cognitive development.

Is there scientific evidence that suggests breastfed babies are smarter?

There is some research that has suggested a potential link between breastfeeding and improved cognitive development in children. Breast milk contains nutrients and fatty acids that are beneficial for brain development. However, the evidence is not conclusive, and there are many other factors at play in a child’s cognitive development.

What are the potential benefits of breastfeeding for a baby’s brain development?

Breast milk contains nutrients like DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) that are important for brain development. It also provides antibodies and enzymes that support overall health, which can indirectly benefit cognitive development.

Are there long-term effects of breastfeeding on intelligence?

Any potential cognitive benefits of breastfeeding may not have a substantial or lasting impact. Other factors, such as a stimulating home environment, quality education, and parenting practices, are likely to have a more significant influence on a child’s intelligence over the long term.

Can formula-fed babies be just as smart as breastfed babies?

Yes, formula-fed babies can also develop into intelligent and healthy children. Infant formula is designed to provide essential nutrients for a baby’s growth and development. A loving and stimulating home environment, along with other factors, play a crucial role in a child’s cognitive development.

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