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Breast milk makes kids brighter, study suggests

graphic January 5, 1998
Web posted at: 11:24 p.m. EST (0424 GMT)

CHICAGO (CNN) -- Children who were breast-fed when they were babies perform better in school and score higher on standardized math and reading tests, a new study suggests.

The study, published Monday in the January issue of Pediatrics, was based on a review of more than 1,000 children born in New Zealand in 1977 and followed through age 18.

The authors, Professors David M. Fergusson and L. John Horwood of Christchurch School of Medicine, subscribe to the theory that fatty acids that are present in breast milk but not in formula promote lasting brain development.

vxtreme CNN's Dr. Steve Salvatore reports

The authors found that the longer infants were breast-fed, the higher they scored in evaluations.

Some of the children were breast-fed less than four months, others four to seven months and some for eight months or more, while others were not breast-fed at all.

"It is concluded that breast-feeding is associated with small but detectable increases in child cognitive ability and educational achievement," said the report.

"These effects are pervasive, being reflected in a range of measures including standardized tests, teacher ratings and academic outcomes in high schools," it added.

The breast-fed children in the study tended to have mothers who were older, better-educated and wealthier. Skeptics say those factors, rather than the breast milk itself, could explain the findings.

Breast feeding statistics

But the authors wrote that they adjusted for those factors.

"This study is wonderful because it has followed these children through young adulthood and it seems that it holds true right into adulthood," said Barbara S. Levine of Cornell Medical College.

The substance that makes breast-fed babies smarter is believed to be an omega 3 fatty acid called DHA, found naturally in breast milk but not in formula sold in the United States.

"It is a very important structural fatty acid for both the brain and the retina," Levine said. "Babies that are fed DHA in the first year of life seem to do much better."

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which sponsors the journal Pediatrics, just last month urged mothers to nurse longer -- for at least one year, instead of the previously recommended six months -- for numerous reasons, including the presumed mental benefits.

Lawrence Gartner of the University of Chicago is the chairman of the group that drew up the new guidelines. He said the study generally supports current thinking about breast-feeding.

But he noted it's difficult for a study to account for all the social and educational variables that could also explain the findings.

Medical Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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