Breast-feeding is known to have many positive effects for babies and moms. But the notion that it makes kids smarter or better able to regulate their behaviour is unproven.
Breast-feeding may not make kids sharper or better behaved than their non-nursed peers over the long-term, a new study suggests.
Other factors play larger role
"The belief that babies who are breast-fed have advantages in their cognitive development, in particular, has been a topic of debate for a long time," said Lisa-Christine Girard, the lead researcher on the new study.
Her team found that 3- and 5-year-olds who'd been breast-fed did, in fact, score higher on tests of vocabulary and problem-solving. The children also typically had fewer behavioural issues, based on parents' ratings.
But most of those connections seemed to be explained by other factors – such as the mothers' education and the family's social class.
Breast-feeding was tied to one positive effect: fewer problems with hyperactivity at the age of three. But even that link disappeared by the age of five, the study found.
Breastfeeding and hyperactivity
Still, the finding does suggest that breast-feeding might have a direct effect on young children's hyperactivity, according to Girard, a research fellow at University College Dublin in Ireland.
But it's possible that things change after kids start school, she added. At that point, other factors might "exert a larger role on children's hyperactivity once the home environment is no longer the predominant environment in which children spend the majority of their waking hours".
It's clear, Girard said, that at least in developed countries, mothers who breast-feed tend to differ from moms who don't. On average, they are more educated and less likely to smoke or engage in other "risky behaviours" during pregnancy, for example.
Breast-feed if you can
Both Furman and Girard stressed the bigger picture: There are already plenty of reasons for moms to breast-feed if they can.
A recent Health24 article advises moms who have trouble breastfeeding to ask for help: "Lactation consultants are there for a reason. If you aren’t managing or if breastfeeding is painful for you, get help right away."
Breast-feeding can help protect babies from respiratory illnesses, ear infections and diarrhoea, according to the US Department of Health. It's also tied to longer-term benefits – including lower risks of asthma and obesity in children, and lower risks of breast and ovarian cancers in moms.