Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Long-term benefits of breastfeeding underscore need for paid family leave

Image source: Eduardo Anizelli/STF/LatinContent/Getty Images

Image source: Eduardo Anizelli/STF/LatinContent/Getty Images

“Prolonged breastfeeding not only increases intelligence until at least the age of 30 years but also has an impact both at an individual and societal level by improving educational attainment and earning ability.”

A recently published study of 6,000 infants in Brazil reveals evidence that breastfeeding is strongly associated with increased intelligence, educational attainment, and income, even many years later.

Research has already shown that breastfeeding is enormously helpful for increasing nutrition, promoting mother-child bonding, preventing obesity, and saving families money. But what Dr. Bernardo Lessa Horta from Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil wanted to find out was whether breastfeeding could impact long-term intelligence and success.

“Our study provides the first evidence that prolonged breastfeeding not only increases intelligence until at least the age of 30 years but also has an impact both at an individual and societal level by improving educational attainment and earning ability,” said Dr. Horta.

Thirty years after Dr. Horta began his study, he was able to follow up with nearly 3,500 of the original 6,000 babies, now 30-year-old adults. Those who had been breastfed tested higher using a standard IQ test, had stayed in school longer and earned a higher income than those who had not. And not only that, but the longer babies were breastfed, the greater the benefits. Children who were breastfed for 12 months or longer, saw even greater benefits in IQ score, schooling and income.

You may be wondering, ‘Yeah, but those kids were probably from families with more money to begin with, right?’ Nope. The research team accounted for factors that may have skewed the results, such as family income at birth, parental schooling, genomic ancestry, maternal smoking during pregnancy, maternal age, birthweight and type of delivery.

Science, and just plain old common sense, shows that in order to give all of us the best chance to succeed as individuals, families and communities, parents need to be able to afford time off to care for new infants. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and a mix of breastfeeding and complementary foods for up to two years of age.

It’s clear why this research matters – for babies, moms, and well,  everyone! But without Paid Family Leave, as well as flexible workplace schedules and family friendly policies that promote breast pumping at work, too many women don’t have the chance to give their babies what they need.

At the federal level, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.), re-introduced the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act this month, which would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income when they take time off for a new infant.

Many people are unaware that Washington State passed legislation providing paid family leave in 2007, becoming the second state in the United States (after California) to do so. However, the leave was never funded, so Washington residents still currently have no access to this benefit.  Washington needs a fully funded paid family leave bill, like the ones already in place (and highly successful!) in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

Like the old adage says, breast is best! Let’s make it so moms and babies can actually get the best shot at success – and create a stronger economy in the process.

By Sam Hatzenbeler, MPHc

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