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A recent Brazilian study showed that breastfeeding has a positive impact on a child's IQ, academic success, and income in later life. How big is the impact, and how important is breastfeeding really?

Breastfeeding is wonderful, best, and natural. It comes with a whole range of health benefits for mothers and babies alike, from a reduced risk of diarrhea and ear infections to lower odds of obesity and diabetes, and a less of a chance of developing breast cancer for moms. It also promotes mother-baby bonding and encourages easier postpartum weight loss.

Are you a mom? Then you've heard this song — a more elaborate version of it — many times before.

If you breastfed and never encountered complications, or if you successfully overcame complications and still managed to nurse your baby, these things make you feel good. If you couldn't or simply didn't breastfeed, they may make you feel guilty. The guilt may be self-imposed, but it can also be imposed by other mothers around you and on the internet. Who doesn't want the best for their baby, after all? If you didn't manage to provide all these wonderful and long-term health benefits to your child by nursing, the message you'll get is unsettling: you fell short. 

You may have heard that breastfeeding makes your child smarter too, and more specifically that it enables your child to perform better on IQ tests. A new and large-scale Brazilian study into the correlation between breastfeeding and IQ, academic performance and income has made that message go viral over the last few weeks. News outlets from all over the world have been loud and clear. Breastfeeding makes your kid smarter, and the longer you breastfeed, the more intelligent they'll be. Now you'll really need to feel guilty if you didn't breastfeed, right?

Well, actually — as nearly always — the results of the study were a little more complicated. Let's take a look.

How Was The Brazilian Study Designed?

The authors of the study, titled "Association between breastfeeding and intelligence, educational attainment, and income at 30 years of age: a prospective birth cohort study from Brazil", noted that breastfeeding has clear and pretty well-researched short-term benefits, but that the long-term benefits of nursing your baby were still not clear. They set out to change that by enrolling a large number of Brazilian babies in a study that would span decades.

During the early childhood of participating individuals, the research team recorded information about how they were fed, and if they were breastfed, for how long.

When those babies reached age 30, they examined:

  • Their IQ, using the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, 3rd version.
  • How many years of schooling they had, and what their educational attainments were.
  • Their income.

The study team started with nearly 6,000 babies, but were able to follow up on about 3,500 of them three decades on. The conclusion? "Breastfeeding is associated with improved performance in intelligence tests 30 years later, and might have an important effect in real life, by increasing educational attainment and income in adulthood."

Dr Bernardo Lessa Horta, from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, described the study as unique, because breastfeeding was evenly practiced by members of all social classes in the population they studied. Indeed, the researchers did try to adjust for other factors that could explain differences in IQ level, notably maternal education, birth weight, and family income. 

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