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How to raise a smarter, healthier child

Nothing says cute like a pudgy baby. And now researchers have found evidence that what babies drink may make them grow up smarter and healthier.

One study shows that male babies fed breast milk for at least six months performed better academically when they reached middle school than kids breast-fed for less time.

"Academically, I think it has a lot to do with the bond you develop between mother and baby. There's a close-knit association ... unlike any other ... they are soul mates," said Jennifer Like, mom of 5-month-old Rebecca.

Breast-feeding for at least half a year boosted male babies' brains, the study by Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Australia found. Researchers studied more than 1,000 children. Reading scores for females improved, but not enough to be statistically significant.

"We've always known that breast milk is the best thing to feed babies. There have been studies out for a while showing higher IQ in babies who are breast-fed," said Dr. Amie Prough, a pediatrician with Integris Family Care Edmond Renaissance.

Infants breast-fed longer were also less likely to have mental health issues as teens, according to lead researcher Wendy Oddy's previous study. And a 2008 McGill University study of 14,000 children shows that prolonged and exclusive breast-feeding raises kids' IQs and improves their academic performance.

While milk does a mind good, a common baby formula may do a body almost too much good.

Babies on cow's-milk-based formula gain weight much faster than babies on a protein hydrolysate formula, other researchers found. The predigested protein formula is used by a fraction of parents because it's expensive, the taste is inferior and it's typically given just to infants with allergy or digestive tract problems. Even after 31/2 months of age, the cow's-milk-formula-fed babies weighed significantly more for their age. And the cow's-milk-fed kids remained heavier throughout the study.

Experts say it is worrisome that children are sent down a pathway toward obesity even before they start solid foods. And almost one-third of 9-month-olds nationally are overweight or obese. Data show that a fat baby is likely to grow into an overweight adult.

Few parents are concerned about their youngsters' weight, according to observations by Dr. Brooke Nida, a pediatrician with Renaissance.

"In fact, with older kids, sometimes their parents are surprised when we tell them their child is overweight," Nida said. "As a society we are larger than we used to be. So they're comparing their children with classmates."

Nida, Prough and The American Academy of Pediatricians recommend breast-feeding because it is protective against future risk of obesity, among numerous other pluses.

"I think there is a trend toward obesity in formula-fed babies that we don't see in breast-fed babies," said Tanya Shamblin, program administrator for the Oklahoma City-County Health Department's Children First, pairing nurses and expectant or new mothers, to help with nursing and nutrition.

She said breast-fed babies also get the benefit of a change in flavor depending on the mom's diet, while formula babies get the same flavor each day.

Jennifer Like, the new mom who also is a dietitian, said she'll offer her baby the benefits against obesity, allergies, diabetes and many illnesses by following pediatricians' advice to breast-feed even after daughter gets solid food and past her first birthday. Oftentimes, babies continue getting breast milk into their second year.

"Breast-feeding teaches the baby to feed on demand ... rather than being concerned with how many ounces they're drinking," she said. "Breast-feeding starts instilling good habits from the beginning."

"If we prevent the weight gain from happening in early childhood, we wouldn't be having this problem with obesity as adults."