Breast-Feeding Debate Closed? Brain Science Weighs In

01/26/2011 10:11 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I remember meeting up with an old friend who had just become a mother. Baby in tow, we entered a restaurant. She immediately insisted on sitting at a private booth, and after five minutes, I discovered why. Mom knew that her baby would soon be hungry. When he was, she discreetly unbuttoned her blouse, adjusted her bra, and began breast-feeding. The baby latched on for dear life.

Mom had to go through all kinds of contortions to hide this activity. "I've been thrown out of other places because I did this," she explained. Though shrouded in an oversize sweater, she was visibly nervous as the waiter took her order.

If America knew what breast milk can do for the brains of it youngest citizens, lactating mothers across the nation would be enshrined, not embarrassed. Though the topic is much debated, there's little controversy about it in the scientific community.

Breast milk is the nutritional equivalent of a magic bullet for a developing baby. It has important salts and even more important vitamins. Its immune-friendly properties prevent ear, respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.

And in a result that surprised just about everybody, studies around the world confirmed that breast-feeding, in short, makes babies smarter. Breast-fed babies in America score on average eight points higher than bottle-fed kids when given cognitive tests, an effect still observable nearly a decade after the breast-feeding has stopped. They get better grades, too, especially in reading and writing.

Why? We have some ideas:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all mothers breast-feed exclusively for the first six months of their babies' lives, continue breast-feeding as their kids start taking on solids, and wean them after a year.

If we as a country wanted a smarter population, we would insist on lactation rooms in every public establishment. A sign would hang from the door of these rooms: "Quiet, please. Brain development in progress."

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John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and author of the New York Times bestseller "Brain Rules." His latest book is "Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five." He is an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is also the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.