According to La Leche League International, a recognized authority on the topic, breast milk is the superior infant food as well as the only food necessary for a healthy, full-term baby. Support for this most natural practice can also be found in many scientific studies, some most recent of which find that children who were breastfed score higher on IQ tests.

For these reasons and many others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is happy to announce that the results from its Breastfeeding Report Card indicate that, over the last decade, breastfeeding rates have continued to rise.

Health Benefits

As the CDC seeks to improve the health of parents and their children, the organization has long made breastfeeding, with its many benefits to both mother and child, its focus. "Babies who are breastfed have lower risks of ear and gastrointestinal infections, diabetes and obesity, and mothers who breastfeed have lower risks of breast and ovarian cancers," said CDC Director, Tom Frieden, M.D. M.P.H, in a recent statement to the press.

Discussing the CDC report card, which assembles data and crunches numbers state-by-state, Frieden highlights the areas of breastfeeding initiation and breastfeeding at six and 12 months, all of which show increases of about two percentage points. Specifically, the report estimates that breastfeeding initiation increased from 74.6 percent in 2008 to 76.9 percent in 2009 births, the largest annual increase over a previous decade ever recorded by the agency. Breastfeeding at six months increased from 44.3 percent to 47.2 percent; meanwhile at 12 months, the practice increased from 23.8 percent to 25.5 percent.

"The period right after a baby is born is a critical time for establishing breastfeeding," said Janet L. Collins, Ph.D., director of CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. Because of this, Collins suggests that hospitals as well as families take steps to room mother and infants together as well as to increase skin-to-skin contact. These simple yet meaningful steps will help increase opportunity and convenience while promoting a further rise in overall rates of breastfeeding — all of which is significant in terms of the health prospects for both mother and child, but also because of the positive effects on a child's cognitive development.

Brain Benefits

In a recent study, researchers from Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School sought to explore the link between breastfeeding and a child's intellect at ages three and seven. To discover the nature of the relationship between the maternal practice and IQ, they created Project Viva, a longitudinal research study of "health for the next generation;" essentially, they enrolled mothers pre-birth and then collected information on them and their children over time. For the results of this particular study, they tracked 1,312 mothers and their children until the age of seven beginning April 22, 1999 and running through July 31, 2002.

The assessments they used to evaluate the childrens' cognitive abilities included the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (given at age three), Wide Range Assessment of Visual Motor Abilities (given at ages three and seven), and the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test and Wide Range Assessment of Memory and Learning (given at age seven).

Adjusting for sociodemographics, maternal intelligence, and home environment, longer breastfeeding duration was associated with higher Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test score at age three, and with higher intelligence on the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test at age seven. Breastfeeding duration, though, did not have an impact on Wide Range Assessment of Memory and Learning scores. The researchers also investigated the extent to which the mother's diet during the breastfeeding period modified the results.

They discovered beneficial effects related to fish. Specifically, the children of women who ate two or more servings of fish per week while breastfeeding did better on the Wide Range Assessment of Visual Motor Abilities at age three than the children of mothers who ate less than two servings of fish per week. "Our results support a causal relationship of breastfeeding duration with receptive language and verbal and nonverbal intelligence later in life," wrote the authors of the study.

Given the possible link between a lactating mother's nutrition intake and her child's abilities, what is an appropriate diet for a breastfeeding mom?

Mother's Diet

Most dietary guidelines for breastfeeding mothers begin with the recommendation to drink plenty of liquids in order to stay hydrated, though fluid intake does not increase milk flow. As one might expect, drinking alcohol is restricted, yet at the same time mothers are also warned against consuming too much caffeine and sugary drinks, including juices. Coffee and other caffeinated products tend to agitate babies while sugar will unnecessarily and unhealthily increase a mother's weight.

The Mayo Clinic suggests a woman focus on making healthy choices to help fuel her production of milk and also provide proper nutrition to her baby. In line with this advice, the clinic advocates a mother "opt for a variety of whole grains as well as fruits and vegetables. Eating a variety of different foods while breast-feeding ... will expose your baby to different tastes, which might help him or her more easily accept solid foods down the road."

Similarly, La Leche notes that there are very few specific recommendations regarding the diet of mothers, though it recommends any woman who eats in a restricted way, perhaps those who follow a vegan or macrobiotic diet, take steps to improve nutrient intakes and discuss the matter of supplementation with their healthcare provider. Although, a website created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also proposes a lactating mother talk to her doctor about taking multivitamin and mineral supplements, the website also unequivocally states that "vitamin and mineral supplements cannot replace a healthy diet."

The most common nutritional advice given to lactating mothers? Eat healthy and savor each moment of breastfeeding your baby.

Source: Belfort MB, Rifas-Shiman SL, Kleinman KP, et al. Infant Feeding and Childhood Cognition at Ages 3 and 7 Years: Effects of Breastfeeding Duration and Exclusivity. JAMA Pediatrics. 2013.