If last week’s headlines about breastfeeding gave you a pang of guilt, screw that. Here’s what you need to know about the ‘breastfeeding makes your baby smarter’ study.
Over the past week the headlines have been triumphant: “The longer babies breastfeed, the more they achieve in life – major study” from The Guardian. And “Breastfed babies grow up smarter, richer, study shows,” from The Telegraph.
Around the world, two things happened – breastfeeding advocates shouted “See – we told you so!!!” And non-breastfeeding mothers either wept over their formula tins or furiously typed into comment boxes, “But I can’t! Mastitis and… pumping… PND…. Don’t you dare judge me!”
Now, you might expect a person who wrote a book called, “Guilt-Free Bottle-Feeding: Why your formula-fed baby can be happy, healthy and smart” to be in the latter category. But actually my response was a big, fat:
It was so meh that I wasn’t going to bother writing about it, but the continued attention it’s received has drawn me out of my meh-ness, to explain why, as the mother of a predominantly formula-fed child I am not at all perturbed by the study and its findings, and why you shouldn’t be either. So here goes:
1) The study doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, or didn’t already suspect. Multiple studies into children have suggested a small dose-response boost in IQ from breastfeeding. This study is unique in that it tested adults, but it’s not surprising that it finds adults receive a small boost in IQ from breastfeeding if it’s already generally acknowledged that kids do.
2) The non-breastfed babies in this study received formula that didn’t have added long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids added to it. The authors themselves theorise that these brain-boosters, which are found in abundance in breastmilk but not in regular formula, could be behind much of the IQ boost. If the babies in the study had been given a modern-day formula with added LCPUFAs in it, it is very possible, even likely, that the boost in IQ points might have been less than 4 points.
4) Four IQ points ain’t that much. In practical terms, it has an almost immeasurable difference on day-to-day capacity on an individual level. Now, the study’s authors posit that the boost they found in the breastfed babies’ incomes in their study was down to the group having a higher IQ. However, as one of the authors, Dr Bernardo Lesso Horta acknowledged in a Lancet podcast this week, breastfed babies tend to come from wealthier homes, “So there is always a question of whether [an outcome like higher IQ] is a consequence of breastfeeding by itself… The kids who are breastfed are wealthier.” So, maybe they have other advantages in life which can help boost their IQ. Either way, I challenge you to tell the difference between someone with an IQ of 112 vs 116.