Contrary to popular belief, a controversial new study published in Pediatrics claims that breastfeeding may not actually make your baby smarter.
Cue the protests now.
The study compared breastfed and formula-fed children from 8,000 Irish families at ages 3 and 5. Based on parent and teacher assessments, as well as standardized tests, they collected data on the children’s behavior problems, expressive vocabulary and cognitive abilities.
At first glance, the data seems to show that the breastfed children scored higher across the board. However, it's important to note that there are many socio-economic factors that affect a child’s cognitive development. Mothers who breastfeed tend to be better educated, engage in better prenatal care, and have access to providing more intellectual support to their children.
When the study accounted for these socio-economic advantages, the benefits of breastfeeding on cognition are statistically insignificant. Lisa-Christine Girard, lead author of the study, tells NPR, “We weren't able to find a direct causal link between breast-feeding and children's cognitive outcomes.”
The study did find that breastfeeding created a small but significant improvement in hyperactivity at age 3, but it disappeared by age 5. That is, breastfeeding alone may make your child less hyper for a few years, but it won't make them smarter.
As a mother who was unable to breastfeed her first child and exclusively breastfed her second child, I’m not sure how to feel about findings like these.
While breastfeeding may not lead to smarter children, it does have many other scientifically proven benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life and that recommendation has not changed in light of these findings.
As a mother who was unable to breastfeed her first child and exclusively breastfed her second child, I’m not sure how to feel about findings like these. The part of me who sacrificed so much to breastfeed for an entire year wants to pick it apart and dismiss the findings. On challenging breastfeeding days the laundry list of ways I was helping my child helped carry me through.
On the other hand, I still struggle with the guilt I have for failing to breastfeed the first time around. For that mama, I want to celebrate these findings. Overblown claims of the benefits of breastfeeding make moms who couldn’t breastfeed feel worse than they need to.
What's most encouraging is that this study points to the many other factors outside of breastfeeding that can improve your child’s behavior and intelligence. My first son may have been fed formula, but he also had the undivided attention of a college educated mother and a giant pile of books.
Ultimately, it’s important that you don’t let one study’s findings hold too much influence over your relationship with breastfeeding. Just as I hope that this study helps mothers who formula feed feel less guilty, I also hope that is doesn’t deter anyone from breastfeeding their baby.
Breastfeeding is just one piece in the complex puzzle of raising healthy, bright children. It's an important piece, but thankfully not the only one.