Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Breastfeeding and cognitive skills

Breastfeeding is now almost universally promoted as the healthiest way to feed a baby. And indeed, while breastfed babies are a little smaller and than bottle-fed ones and gain a little less weight, they are healthier, it is thought mainly because the mother milk transmits antibodies and relevant nutrients. But not every mother breast feeds, maybe because not every mother realizes all the benefits, or because some of the costs are high (time management for working mothers or aesthetic issues). Or there are some other benefits that are not well known.

Maria Iacovou and Almudena Sevilla-Sanz report that breastfeeding has significant positive impacts on cognitive skills (reading, writing and mathematics). While this correlation is well known, it may be spurious because mothers who breastfeed are more likely to be well educated (Irish example), and their children are also more likely to be well educated as well. The obvious way to overcome this statistical issue, a randomized trial, is not feasible on ethical grounds. What Iacovou and Sevilla-Sanz do is use propensity score matching, which essentially matches babies that have the same characteristics but breastfeeding and then compare their cognitive skills. What is particularly impressive in this study is that the retained characteristics are very broad beyond baby demographics and health, including parent characteristics such as education, job, income, and even pre-birth attitude towards breastfeeding or home and neighborhood. And even after controlling for all these variables, the impact of breastfeeding is still significant on babies from Bristol (England), and it may even grow with age.

No comments: