Health Buzz: Breast-fed Boys Score Higher on Tests, Study Shows

Plus, how moms can also benefit from nursing their kids.

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Boys Do Better in Math, Reading, Spelling, and Writing

Moms who breastfeed their newborns, especially boys, seem to give them a long-term leg up in school, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics. In following more than 1,000 children, researchers found the 10-year-old boys fared better on standardized tests in math, reading, spelling, and writing if they had been breast-fed for at least six months as infants when compared to bottle-fed counterparts, HealthDay reports. They couldn't say the same for girls who were breast-fed the same amount of time, though; although breast-fed girls appeared to do slightly better in reading than formula-fed girls, that difference may have been due to chance, the researchers say. Researchers hypothesized that the gender difference they observed may have to do with boys, more than girls, relying on their moms when acquiring cognitive and language skills. That could explain why boys benefit more from the maternal relationship they form through breastfeeding. While this new research points only to benefits for boys, experts say it should not discourage moms from breastfeeding girls. Breast milk contains a certain type of fatty acids that's necessary for optimal brain growth and that may not be found in formula milk, the researchers wrote. Breastmilk is also easier for infants to digest and helps prevent ear infections and chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It's not just the little ones who benefit from breastfeeding, U.S. News's Deborah Kotz reported in August. Nursing moms may be protected against a slew of life-threatening diseases, including:

From: 4 Breastfeeding Benefits for Mom

1. Reproductive cancers. It's well established that women who have their first baby after age 25 or who have fewer than four children are more likely to get breast cancer than their counterparts who give birth at a young age or have a lot of kids. But research has shown that nursing for six months or more negates these risks. Prolonged nursing also lowers a woman's lifetime risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer, probably because it suppresses ovulation—and the ovulatory hormones that play a role in these cancers—during those first few months that she nurses exclusively.

2. Heart disease. Last year, researchers found that women who nursed for at least 24 months over the course of their reproductive lifespan had a 23 percent lower risk of developing heart disease. While the reason is still unknown, researchers theorize that it could be due to the beneficial effects that nursing has on the body's metabolism of sugar and fats. Nursing may also decrease visceral fat—the dangerous kind that collects around the abdominal organs—and promote healthier fat storage on the hips and thighs. One thing nursing doesn't appear to do: trigger weight loss. While it takes plenty of calories to produce breast milk, nursing moms usually find that their appetites increase, causing them to eat more.

3. Rheumatoid arthritis. A number of studies have linked breastfeeding to protection against rheumatoid arthritis. One from Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital found that nursing for a total of two years decreased the risk by 50 percent, while nursing for 12 to 23 months lowered risk by 20 percent. Nursing seems to permanently alter levels of female sex hormones, like estrogen and certain androgens, thought to play a role in this debilitating condition.

4. Diabetes. The latest study adds to evidence that nursing protects against type 2 diabetes. That's likely because lactation makes cells more sensitive to the hormone insulin. (In fact, diabetic mothers who breast-feed usually require less insulin when they nurse.) It could also be due to nursing's effect on where fat is stored: on the hips and thighs rather than on the belly. Excess abdominal fat, often acquired during pregnancy, is a key risk factor in adult diabetes.

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