Published On: March 27, 2015

Brazilian Study Proves Importance of Breastfeeding

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Gisele breastfeeding

Here’s good news for Gisele Bündchen’s children: Researchers in Brazil have followed nearly 6,000 babies from birth for the past three decades, enabling scientists for the first time to get an idea of the long-term effects of breastfeeding.

Nearly 3,500 children, now 30-year-old adults, accepted an invitation to be interviewed and sit for IQ tests for the purpose of the study. Those who had been breastfed proved to be more intelligent, had spent longer at school, and earned more than those who had not been. Also, the longer they were breastfed as a baby, the better they tended to be doing.

It is already known that breastfeeding can increase a child’s IQ by a small amount. The question that Dr. Bernardo Lessa Horta from the Federal University of Pelotas in Rio Grande do Sul wanted to answer was whether this translated into greater intelligence and better prospects as an adult.

article-2332797-1A0D6CD3000005DC-828_634x424“Our study provides the first evidence that prolonged breastfeeding not only increases intelligence until at least the age of 30, but also has an impact both at an individual and societal level by improving educational attainment and earning ability,” he said. The results showed that as adults, the test subjects who were breastfed for at least the first 12 months of life had four extra IQ points and an additional 349 reais in monthly income compared with subjects who were not breastfed.

“It is not just the age of the participants that makes this study unusual,” Horta says. “It is free of the major complication of most breastfeeding studies,” because, when it began in 1982, “it was not just the more affluent and educated mothers who breastfed in Brazil. Breastfeeding was not limited to one socio-economic group.” It was, he says, evenly distributed across the social classes. So the higher achievers at the age of 30 did not come from better-off homes.

As a result, the Brazilian government said it will bolster campaigns to promote breastfeeding. “The positive impacts demonstrated by this study are one more reason to continue investing and caring for the full development of children along their lives,” Paulo Bonilha, coordinator of children’s affairs at Brazil’s Health Ministry, said in a statement.

The results of the study, published in The Lancet Global Health journal, underline the positive effects ofbreastfeeding breastfeeding on intelligence, explained by the presence in mother’s milk of saturated fats that are essential for brain development.

Brazil’s Health Ministry has long sought to encourage breastfeeding of newborns, which has been shown to reduce infant mortality, one of the U.N. Millennium Goals. Health Ministry figures show the proportion of Brazilian mothers who nurse their babies for the first six months after birth has increased 10.2 percent in the last seven years.

Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months is recommended by the World Health Organization. Horta said babies who had been breastfed for six months got most of the benefits enjoyed by those who were fed for longer. “Mothers should breastfeed for as long as possible,” he said, but he recognized that extended breastfeeding is not always easy for women. Less than a quarter of new mothers in England are still exclusively breastfeeding by the time the baby is six weeks old.

Dr. Colin Michie, chair of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s nutrition committee, said: “It’s widely known that breastfed babies are better protected against chest and ear infections, are at less risk of sudden infant death and are less likely to become obese, but it’s interesting to see the benefits of breastfeeding for a prolonged period of time not only benefit the baby in the early years, but also translate into increased intelligence and improved earning ability later in life.”

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Law Allows Public Breastfeeding

The mayor of São Paulo is getting ready to sign legislation that would issue a fine against any business or organization that prevents women from breastfeeding in public. Concern about prejudice towards nursing mothers has been brought into the spotlight by a series of incidents in São Paulo involving women being reprimanded by officials for “embarrassing” bystanders. When the law is signed, it will be the first of its kind in the world.

The highest profile incident occurred last year, when model Priscila Navarro Bueno was scolded by a security guard for breastfeeding her seven-month-old daughter during a David Bowie exhibition at the Museum of Image and Sound in São Paulo. In response to the prejudice against public breastfeeding, nursing mothers have organized three annual “Mamaço Time” protests. Last year, about 40 mothers breastfed their babies on Avenida Paulista in São Paulo and chanted “Breastfeeding is my right.”

Mamaço Time

Mamaço Time

Breast Milk as a Business

American mothers are earning extra money by selling their breast milk to companies like Prolacta Bioscience in California. Gretty Amaya, who lives in Miami, has made more than $2,000 so far by pumping breast milk and selling what is left over after feeding her baby daughter.

Frozen milk from Gretty and from hundreds of other women throughout the country is flown to Prolacta. The company then concentrates the breast milk into a high-protein product fed to extremely premature babies in neonatal intensive care units in the US.

Breast milk, that most ancient and fundamental of nourishments, is becoming an industrial commodity, and one of the newest frontiers of the biotechnology industry, even as concerns abound over this fast-growing business. “This is white plasma,” said Scott A. Elster, Prolacta’s chief executive. He was comparing milk to blood plasma, which has long been collected from donors and made into valuable medical products.

Gretty Amaya with her children.  Photo credit: Ryan Stone for The New York Times

Gretty Amaya with her children
Photo: Ryan Stone for The New York Times

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that because of the “potent benefits of human milk,” all premature babies should receive breast milk, preferably from their mothers but if not, then from donors. But there is not enough donor milk for that, experts say, partly because many women do not know that they can donate or sell excess milk.

Some American women give milk directly to other mothers who need it, using milk-sharing websites like Eats on Feets. Some sell their milk to other mothers (or in some cases to male body builders who believe it builds muscle), through websites like Only the Breast, hoping to receive more than the $1 an ounce that Prolacta pays.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an American professor, sent more than 1,000 ounces (30 liters) of breast milk to the Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose, Calif., which distributes milk free to neonatal intensive care units around the US. She says, “Breast milk donation ought to be more like giving blood, not for profit.”

Prolacta

Prolacta

[This article is based on reporting by the EFE news agency; by Jonathan Watts and Sarah Boseley in two articles for The Guardian; and by Andrew Pollack for The New York Times. It was edited by CIE.]

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