London - Babies who are breastfed grow up to be more intelligent, scientists have suggested.
Just four weeks on their mothers’ milk can have a “significant” effect on a child’s development in primary and secondary school, research has found.
Those who have been breastfed do better at reading, writing and maths at the ages of five, seven, 11 and 14.
While breast milk has long been known to boost babies’ immunity, helping them fight ear infections, stomach bugs and even asthma, little was known about its effects on intelligence until now.
Maria Iacovou, one of the authors of the study, said: “The issue was that while it looked as though breastfeeding did have an impact on cognitive development, no one knew if that was just because the type of mother more likely to breastfeed in the first place was more likely to nurture brighter children, or whether there was a true causal link.
“Breast milk has well-known health benefits and now we can say there are clear benefits for children’s brains as well.”
But despite endless Government campaigns promoting it, Britain has one of the worst breastfeeding rates in Europe.
Twenty percent of new mothers never even try it, compared with just 2 percent in Sweden.
As few as 3 percent breastfeed for the recommended six months, and only a third are still doing so after a week.
Dr Iacovou, a social scientist at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, insisted that she didn’t intend “to make any mother feel guilty”.
She said there were significant challenges to face when trying to change attitudes to breastfeeding and women shouldn’t be pressured to do so.
But, she added, “we should start focusing more on those women who do want to, try to help them and make it more normal for everyone”.
As well as providing babies with vital nutrients, breastfeeding has been shown to protect the mother from breast and ovarian cancer in later life - due to its effects on hormonal balance.
It could even help new mothers return to their pre-pregnancy figures, burning 500 calories a day.
However Janet Fyle, professional policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said that mothers often can’t breastfeed because of pressures to return to work.
She added: “In this country we are cutting benefits to single parent families and poorer people, and mothers have to get back to work and earn a living, whether it’s in Sainsbury’s or the City - it is what the Government wants them to do.”
The study was conducted by researchers from Oxford University and the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.
It looked at test scores of pupils who were still being breastfed when they were four weeks old and others put on formula milk.
Each breastfed child was compared with a bottle-fed child from a very similar background, based on factors such as parents’ income, jobs and whether they were separated.
Despite very similar upbringings, those who had been breastfed consistently did better in maths, reading and writing throughout primary and secondary school, the study of more than 10,000 children found. - Daily Mail