Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital believe cognitive development, or intelligence, may be associated with the length of time an infant spends breastfeeding. According to the study published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal, breast milk is a good source of DHA and DHA supports healthy cognitive development. Breastfeeding longer allows for increased levels of DHA for a longer developmental span, thus improved cognitive development.

Data collected for the study was pulled from the Project Viva cohort – a prebirth cohort that collected information from 1312 mothers and children up to age seven. Of the 1312 participants, researchers used data on 1224 mothers and children. Cognitive data was collected at age three and seven for all participant offspring. Only mothers who breastfed exclusively or mixed-fed offspring with breast milk were included in the study. The average length of time spent exclusively breastfeeding was 2.4 months. Mixed-fed infants were fed breast milk, with other nutrition, for an average of 6.4 months.

Cognitive tests included vocabulary, visual motor, and intelligence testing. Tests were performed at three and seven years. According to the test results, children who breastfed longer performed better on cognitive tests with increased intelligence test scores at age seven. Maternal diet also played an important part in test scores. Mothers who consumed fish more than two times per week would have excreted higher levels of DHA in breast milk. The study found higher fish intake resulted in improved visual motor abilities, based on test results.

Researchers believe breastfeeding support is extremely important, especially for mothers in populations that infrequently practice long-term breastfeeding. Infants are best fed with breast milk for the first six months. There is no need for supplemental food or formula during this time, in most cases. Breastfeeding should be continued at least through the first year, according to study authors, for optimal support of cognitive development.

According to Dr. Dimitri Christakis from the research institute at Seattle Children’s Hospital, up to 70% of women start breastfeeding immediately after birth, but few maintain breastfeeding beyond six months. Breastfeeding support and education on the development impact of continued breastfeeding may help new mothers better understand the importance of DHA and breast milk.

Source: Mandy B. Belfort, MD, MPH; Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, MPH; Ken P. Kleinman, ScD; Lauren B. Guthrie, MPH; David C. Bellinger, Ph.D.; Elsie M. Taveras, MD, MPH; Matthew W. Gillman, MD, SM; Emily Oken, MD, MPH. Infant Feeding and Childhood Cognition at Ages 3 and 7 Years: Effects of Breastfeeding Duration and Exclusivity. JAMA Pediatr. 2013;():-. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.455.