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PROVO — Parenting skills, not breastfeeding, explain why some children are more prepared for school than others, according to a new study from Brigham Young University.
Previous studies have shown a link between breastfeeding and a child's performance at school, but have been unable to explain the connection. Researchers from BYU determined it is not breastfeeding that helps a child's brain develop, but parenting behaviors like reading together at a young age and paying attention to a child's learning process.
"Women who exclusively breastfeed are the same kind of women who participate in high-quality parenting behaviors," said researcher Ben Gibbs.
The researchers used a national data set designed to give a portrait of school readiness that assessed children when they were 9 months old, 2 years old and 4 years old to conduct the study. It included video of the interactions between mother and child and information about different health factors that might play a role in a child's development.
When they took parenting behaviors into account, Gibbs said they couldn't find any link between breastfeeding and cognitive development, specifically as it pertains to early math and reading.
The good news is that mothers who are unable to breastfeed have the same opportunity to help prepare their children to have an advantage at school, Gibbs said.
He suggested parents help their children by reading a book together every day and adapting to their child's learning process. He said the children who performed well in the study had mothers who adjusted their parenting behaviors based on their child's struggles.
“Aside from just a critique about the breastfeeding link to child development, we offer the possibility to actually know what the most important behaviors are,” he said.
For mothers considering whether or not to breastfeed, Gibbs still advocates exclusive breastfeeding for six months or more. In a previous study, the same researchers found an important link between breastfeeding and preventing childhood obesity.
“There are definite benefits to breastfeeding outside of our focus on early math and early reading skills," he said.
The study will appear in the March issue of The Journal of Pediatrics.