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Benefits of Breastfeeding. Before Dispelling the Myth, One Should Know What They Are

Recently Romanian media, joining the international one, publicized the results of a study on Effects of Exclusive and Prolonged Breastfeeding, undertaken in Belarus by an international team, known as PROBIT study.  

According to the leader of this research, Professor Dr. Michael Kramer the results confirm the results of some previous studies while invalidating others.  As shown afterwards by other researchers, the methodology and interpretation used in the stud are debatable. The study hat three phases, and in the report of PROBIT III the authors are clearly stating ”it is important to emphasize that the experimental intervention was designed to increase the degree and duration of breastfeeding, not to increase its initiation. Thus, our findings may not apply to comparisons of breastfeeding versus formula feeding.”

The articles published upon the results of this study had titles underlying that “the advantages of breastfeeding have been largely exaggerated”. It is possible that some of the advantages have not been demonstrated by thorough scientific experiments (yet).  

And still, before trying to demythologize the benefits considered exaggerated one should look at two issues: what is breastfeeding and what are its undisputed benefits.

What is breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding is the natural, normal way of feeding the infants of each mammalian species. Sounds simple and it really is: each mother can feed her infant and the first role of breastfeeding is to ensure the child survival. Therefore, the milk of each mother ensures all needed nutrients for survival, development and growth of the child, according to the need of the species. Human milk, that has to support a muscular and skeletal slow growth, but a rapid brain growth contains all the fatty acids that essentially contribute to this end. Cow’s milk, that has to ensure a rapid muscular and skeletal growth, contains all the proteins that sustain adequate development of calf. These being said, and demonstrated by many studies, appears as obvious that his/her mother’s milk is the ideal food for each new born, its composition is not (and doesn’t have to) consistent all the time, it varies according to child’s age, throughout the day and throughout a meal. All these have the aim of ensuring every minute the best nutrition for survival, growth and development of the child.  

What are the undisputed benefits of breastfeeding?

The benefits of breastfeeding have been studied from three perspectives: of the infant, of mother and of the society. At a closer look, one may see that in fact any of the benefits is common to all three actors involved. 

One of the undisputed benefits of breastfeeding, underlined including in the study that opened this discussion, is the boost of IQ in the breastfed children.  The cited study shows that exclusive breastfeeding (ONLY mother’s milk, no teas, no water) for 3 months increases the child’s IQ with 3 points, but being exclusively breastfed for 6 months can increase child’s IQ with 6 to 8 points. At first, this may seen not important but this IQ increase can be essential for child himself, but also for mother and society. The opponents of breastfeeding offer as examples intelligent, well adjusted individuals that have not been breastfed, saying that IQ is also linked with genetics and education, which is perfectly true. But let us look the other side: a child with unfavourable genetic inheritance, growing in an environment unpropitious for learning can greatly benefit of the 6-8 increase of IQ. For him/her these points can represent the difference between normal and deficient intellect. At the other end of the scale, an increase with 6-8 puncte in IQ can push a child from the average intellect to superior intellect category.

At a closer look upon Romanian statistics one can see that at the age of one year 60% of children are anemic and at the school age, one in three has iron deficit anemia. It is well known that one of the effects of anemia through iron deficit is decrease in the capacity of intellectual effort and that one of the avenues to ameliorate the infant anemia is breastfeeding because the iron from maternal milk, even if it’s in lower percent that in substitutes, is better absorbed. 

Also from national statistics one can find out that, despite some significant improvements, iodine deficiency is still a public health problem and that 47% of children aged 6-7 years old have various degrees of iodine deficiency. It is known that the most severe effect of iodine deficiency is mental retard. That is why the 6-8 IQ points gained through breastfeeding do not seem so few anymore.

Let us go beyond national statistics and see where are Romanian children in terms of learning. A recently released UNICEF study regarding “Learning Achievement in The CEE/CIS Region – A Comparative Analysis Of The Results From The 2006 Programme For International Student Assessment (PISA)  shows results under the average of the children in the region, in overall achievements and also for each individual area that was investigated: science, reading, mathematics. What is more worrisome is that the study indicates a decline of the performance of the Romanian children, 54% not reaching the baseline. It is obvious that for academic achievements are many contributing factors and that they cannot be obtained only through breastfeeding but breastfeeding can contribute to the increase in each child’s potential.  Again the 6-8 IQ points can prove essential both for individual and society.   

In conclusion, in a country where there are many health (anemia, iodine deficiency, other nutritional deficiencies) and social (increasing poverty and teaching system reform in the frame of the global crisis) factors contributing to decrease of general performances of the individual, no matter how insignificant may look,  breastfeeding can be an important step. It is so important that the information on benefits of breastfeeding is included as a right in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Even it may seem rhetoric, one can ask for who is useful a higher IQ? First, it serves the child, future individual representing an increase in her/ his development potential and later on success. Then it serves the family, increasing the educability potential of the child, whose later success will make the parents proud. And last, but not least the society benefits of more intelligent citizens, able of a higher productivity and able to make wiser decisions.  

Life set aside, what more important gift could a mother give to her child than a better brain?



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