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BYU study: Books, not breast milk, give babies academic edge

Published February 27, 2014 3:04 pm

Child development • Reading, sensitivity to child's cues boost brain development.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Breast-feeding appears to give kids an edge in school, but it's not the milk.

Researchers exploring the link between breast-feeding and school achievement found that mothers who breast feed their kids often also read to their children and were more responsive to their emotional cues. These behaviors turned out to be more crucial to academic success, even if the babies were formula-fed, according to a new study from Brigham Young University.

"It's simple," said author Ben Gibbs. "Read to your child every day is the gold standard."

Those two parenting techniques can boost brain development by two to three months in 4-year-old children, according to Gibbs and co-author Renata Forste, both sociology professors at BYU.

In their paper, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers wrote that they noticed a link between breast-feeding and cognitive development. But in the national data of 7,500 families, they found that when breast-feeding was removed from the equation, children still were high achievers if parents had read to them and responded to their emotional cues.

"The good news for women who don't breast-feed is it doesn't mean those kids are doomed," said Forste. "A lot of women feel guilty if they can't breast-feed. If you can't, it doesn't mean your child is going to be hindered in terms of cognitive development. There are these other skills you can invest in that are actually more important."

That doesn't mean the emphasis on breast-feeding is out the window. The researchers found in a separate study that those children were less likely to be obese at age 2.

"I kind of like how on the one hand we're saying how important breast-feeding is for nutrition," Gibbs said, "but on the other hand saying it doesn't mean that link determines everything."

Their analysis also showed that parents who breast-fed at least three months were also more likely to read to their children, starting as young as 9 months, part of a set of parenting behaviors that tends to help 4-year-olds score better on skill tests they need before entering kindergarten, including shape recognition, basic counting and word recognition.

"When learning something, don't plow through the objective for a top-down parenting approach," Gibbs said. "As a parent myself of four daughters, I feel impatient sometimes, I have something I want them to accomplish within a given span of time. I don't know exactly, but sometimes I feel that's not effective, even if you reach the goal."

The data the researchers used came from the National Center for Education Statistics, which followed some 7,500 mothers and their children from birth to age 5. It includes a wealth of information on home life and videotapes of mothers interacting with their children.

Gibbs and Forste found reading to kids was the strongest predictor of how they would test at age 4.

"A simple survey question ... is more predictive than watching 10,000 videos of mothers with their children," Gibbs said.

Parents who are college-educated and in a higher socioeconomic group tend to do that more, but pinpointing what works could help kids at any income level.

"These are parenting skills that every parent or caregiver should be able to provide their child," said Froste. "Fathers, too."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Reading resources

Find Utah early literacy resources at utahkidsreadytoread.org.