Breastfeeding link to higher neurocognitive testing scores in offspring

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Research finds that children who were breastfed scored higher on neurocognitive tests. Researchers in the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Centre (URMC) analysed thousands of cognitive tests taken by nine and ten-year-olds whose mothers reported they were breastfed, and compared those results to scores of children who were not.

"Our findings suggest that any amount of breastfeeding has a positive cognitive impact, even after just a few months." Dr Daniel Adan Lopez, candidate in the Epidemiology programme who is first author on the study. "That's what's exciting about these results. Hopefully from a policy standpoint, this can help improve the motivation to breastfeed."

Dr Hayley Martin, a fourth year medical student in the Medical Scientist Training Programme and co-author of the study, focuses her research on breastfeeding. "There's already established research showing the numerous benefits breastfeeding has for both mother and child. This study's findings are important for families particularly before and soon after birth when breastfeeding decisions are made. It may encourage breastfeeding goals of one year or more. It also highlights the critical importance of continued work to provide equity focused access to breastfeeding support, prenatal education, and practices to eliminate structural barriers to breastfeeding."

Researchers reviewed the test results of more than 9,000 nine and ten-year-old participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. Variations were found in the cumulative cognitive test scores of breastfed and non-breastfed children. There was also evidence that the longer a child was breastfed, the higher they scored.

"The strongest association was in children who were breastfed more than 12 months," said Lopez. "The scores of children breastfed until they were seven to 12 months were slightly less, and then the one to six month-old scores dips a little more. But all scores were higher when compared to children who didn't breastfeed at all." Previous studies found breastfeeding does not impact executive function or memory, findings in this study made similar findings.

"This supports the foundation of work already being done around lactation and breastfeeding and its impact on a child's health," said Dr Ed Freedman, the principal investigator of the ABCD study in Rochester and lead author of the study. "These are findings that would have not been possible without the ABCD Study and the expansive data set it provides."


Study details
Breastfeeding Duration Is Associated With Domain-Specific Improvements in Cognitive Performance in 9–10-Year-Old Children

Daniel A Lopez, John J Foxe, Yunjiao Mao, Wesley K. Thompson, Hayley J Martin, Edward G Freedman

Published in Frontiers of Public Health on 26 April 2021

Significant immunological, physical and neurological benefits of breastfeeding in infancy are well-established, but to what extent these gains persist into later childhood remain uncertain. This study examines the association between breastfeeding duration and subsequent domain-specific cognitive performance in a diverse sample of 9–10-year-olds enrolled in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study®. The analyses included 9,116 children that attended baseline with their biological mother and had complete neurocognitive and breastfeeding data. Principal component analysis was conducted on data from an extensive battery of neurocognitive tests using varimax-rotation to extract a three-component model encompassing General Ability, Executive Functioning, and Memory. Propensity score weighting using generalized boosted modeling was applied to balance the distribution of observed covariates for children breastfed for 0, 1–6, 7–12, and more than 12 months. Propensity score-adjusted linear regression models revealed significant association between breastfeeding duration and performance on neurocognitive tests representing General Ability, but no evidence of a strong association with Executive Function or Memory. Benefits on General Ability ranged from a 0.109 (1–6 months) to 0.301 (>12 months) standardized beta coefficient difference compared to those not breastfed. Results indicate clear cognitive benefits of breastfeeding but that these do not generalize to all measured domains, with implications for public health policy as it pertains to nutrition during infancy.


University of Rochester Medical Centre material

Frontiers in Public Health study (Open access)

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