LOS ANGELES -- Breast-feeding infants for at least six months appears to give children an advantage in school, according to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Many other studies have also found a small effect on school performance from breast-feeding. This study, however, was unique in that boys appeared to benefit the most. The researchers, from the University of Western Australia in Perth, have followed 2,868 children since the early '90s. The study showed that, at age 10, boys who were breast-fed for six months or longer scored higher in math, reading and spelling compared with boys who were breast-fed for less than six months. Girls who were breast-fed for at least six months showed a small improvement in reading. The researchers controlled for other factors that could influence school performance, such as family income and education and how often the child was read to.
Breast milk is rich in long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acids that are critical to brain development. It's not clear why boys showed the largest gains from being breast-fed, but the authors explain that male babies are known to be more vulnerable in infancy than females. They speculate that breast-feeding "accelerates the rate of maturation in boys."
Boys may also benefit more from the mother-child relationship facilitated by breast-feeding. "A number of studies have revealed that male infants are more reliant than female infants on maternal attention and encouragement for the acquisition of cognitive and language skills," the authors wrote.
Breast-feeding confers a lot of other benefits too. Children who are breast-fed seem to have greater protection from viruses and a lower risk of developing asthma, allergies and -- later in life -- obesity and diabetes. Public health experts urge women to nurse their babies exclusively for the first six months of life.
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