Breastfeeding to make my child clever, REALLY?

I recently came across headlines about a recent UK twin-based study that shows that breastfeeding doesn’t improve IQ. This of course reminded me of the Brazilian study earlier in the year that concluded that long term breastfeeding improves IQ, as well as education and financial achievements. These studies are considered to be more rigorous than previous related ones; they considered other potential contributing factors to intelligence like the mother’s social economic background.

I remember particularly avoiding articles about the Brazilian study when it was reported earlier in the year. In fact, I was quite dismissive of it because I didn’t feel it had anything to offer me. I however read a few blog responses to it; they mostly left me speechless, and some made me feel cornered.

In the main, these posts seemed to dim the light on breastfeeding mothers who might have felt jubilant upon reading about the research. I felt somewhat chastised that breastfeeding might possibly benefit my child in this way, because the study made those who weren’t breastfeeding for whatever reason feel bad. I walked away from most of these blogs without commenting; but I felt bad for their authors and hoped they found a way through how the study made them feel.

This new study particularly assures those who do not breastfeed for whatever reason, that their child is not consequently disadvantaged academically. A child’s performance on an IQ test is not determined by breastfeeding, hurray!

Breastfeeding to make my child clever

I’m intrigued by the silence about the funding source of the UK study, especially given its use of the term, ‘bottle-fed’ as opposed to ‘formula-fed’. ‘Why do I think this matters?’, you might wonder. Well, ‘bottle-fed’ does not rule out breast milk, and the study’s outcome challenges previously suggested causation or correlation between breastfeeding and intelligence. It is clear that the researchers mean, ‘formula-fed’, as opposed to ‘bottle-fed’.

This is not a problem in itself, but it would be if a formula manufacturer funded the research. It would look a bit dodgy … like they’re hiding behind a less emotional term. It would also raise concerns about the reliability and objectivity of the study … pumping money into studies with desirable outcomes is not uncommon.

I find it interesting that the NHS analysis post about the Brazilian study included references to breastfeeding problems whilst the one about the UK study didn’t. I wonder why. The basic results section of the UK study is also not as detailed, and there is no reference to the coverage of its implication in UK media like they stated in the Brazilian study. In fact the comment about our media’s response to the studies seems to imply a measure of bias somewhere along the line.

The reference to other benefits of breastfeeding in some of the articles about the UK study made me smile. It’s almost like they are saying, ‘just incase you’re breastfeeding to develop smarter children, don’t quit, breastfeeding has other benefits’.

I must confess that the headlines about the Brazilian study felt good. How lovely to think breastfeeding my child might mean that he would be smarter than if I hadn’t. I mean, who wouldn’t want this kind of secondary outcome for their breastfeeding effort, especially if you’ve had a difficult start like mine.

Even then, I know that the link between breastfeeding and cognitive development is problematic for different reasons. At the heart of it seems to be the difference between causation and correlation.

How can research clearly show that breastfeeding is the cause of better performance on IQ tests or higher earnings? Even then, how can studies conclusively rule out other nature and nuture factors that probably impact cognitive development?

I wasn’t planning on reflecting and recording my thoughts about these studies until I saw the ITV “Breastfeeding: Is it clever?’ post. You see I’ve never seen my breasts as a way to boost my child’s intelligence, however this might be measured.

As a teacher and lifelong learner, I highly value formal and informal education in my parenting. I also know that food – quality and quantity – can impact the readiness to learn, and indeed the interest in learning. Even then, I’ve never for one second seen my milk or the act of breastfeeding as a means to better cognitive development for my child.

In their post, ITV asked the following questions for their ‘Good Morning Britain’ show; below are my answers.

1. “Does this new research affect your opinion on breastfeeding?”

Definitely not. I have been breastfeeding for about 20 months before I came across this research, and indeed in spite of it. This study has no impact on the fact that breastfeeding is the biological norm. Knowing about the outcome of this research would have had no impact on my quest to make breastfeeding work for my little one and I during the difficult months of our feeding journey.

2. “Did you breastfeed because you believed it would improve your child’s IQ or benefit their intelligence?”

Definitely not. I wasn’t aware of any causal link or relationship of any sort between breastfeeding and IQ when I started breastfeeding. The improvement of IQ is too much of a dead weight for my humble but vibrant milk to bear. My milk has given my child so much already, and it continues to give him more than what some extra points on an IQ test could give him, or even an extra year of schooling, or extra pounds a year. My milk gives my child what money can’t buy – my presence, my warmth, and food especially made to order for him from me.

3. Was this “one of the factors that led to you breastfeeding?”

No. It would be interesting to see if any one breastfeeds because they think it would help their child’s intelligence.

4. “Have you never thought there was a direct correlation between breastfeeding and intelligence?”

Never.

So, what’s the overall implication of these two recent studies? I’m not entirely sure. They both make me feel like shouting from the rooftop that I don’t breastfeed to make my child clever. They definitely both have their limitations.

I suppose the Brazilian research potentially adds another smile line to the face of so-called extended breastfeeders like me, whilst the UK study removes a worry line for anyone concerned about using formula.

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What do you think of these studies? What are your answers to ITV’s questions?
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