October 4, 2006

Breastfeeding doesn't make kids smarter.

It's just that smarter mothers tend to breastfeed their kids. Why has it taken three-quarters of a century to puncture this myth, when the methodology -- described at the link -- was so easy?


Bruce Hayden said...

I think that my poor sainted mother went to her grave believing that if she had just tried a little harder, she could have done it, and we all would have been smarter.

I am surprised though that back in 1923 there was the same socio-economic ties between breast feeding and wealth, intelligence, etc. as there are today. My impression was just the opposite - that back then, it was more a recent immigrant sort of thing.

But now? Money and success really do make it easier, from being able to stay home longer, to having a private office in which to to it.

But note the somewhat conflicting study from the Philippines. So, I don't think the jury is in yet here on the intelligence link.

Murdoch said...

Can't immediately track down the BMJ study referenced to check the detail (as opposed to the journalistic take on it on the BBC link given) but I'm surprised and disappointed at the partisan spin by omission you put on it from the flimsy evidence you adduce.

I'd doubt if anyone has ever sensibly argued the simplistic notion that "breastfeeding makes your baby more intelligent". That's a straw man. What people have argued properly is that, subject always to other considerations, breast milk is a better source of nourishment and provides a better environment for a growing baby. This isn't just a matter of colustrum, very important that that is in the early stages, but of antibodies, protein balance and much more. The article that you cited touches on all this and it's something well known, well recognised and accepted by those that have understanding of the subject, the likes of Nestlé and others with commercial interests involved excepted.

Of course not everyone can breastfeed and infant formula is a useful standby. Nor should mothers who have real difficulties be made to feel inadequate. But it remains true that breast feeding gives far and away the best start to any child.

David said...

As I recall, breast feeding is good for the Mom as well as the child;

1. Emotional bonding;
2. cheap chow;
3. Shrinks the uterus'
4. Improves the child's immune system;

to name just a few!

Very few things in life are more peaceful to observe than a Mother breastfeeding a child!

Meade said...

"Breastfeeding doesn't make kids smarter...a study suggests."

Ann Althouse said...

Sorry, Meade. I wasn't breastfed.

Bruce Hayden said...

If that weren't enough for mothers in the U.K., the European Court of Justice just ruled that women in the UK are not entitled to equal pay when such is based on length of service and women have taken time off to have kids.

I am not an expert on employment law here, but that ruling would be unsurprising here - but is a bit from Europe.

Combining the two, there should be no surprise that the number of women nursing for extended periods of time in the UK drops even more.

Bruce Hayden said...


I think that it was the era - of scientific mothering, Dr. Spock, etc. I also expect that the opposite socio-economic forces were in effect back then. It was only when our generation started having kids that the trend reversed.

I wonder if part of it was our hippie culture - back to nature and all that. That was the first place where I saw it, or, indeed, had ever known anyone to do so. Now, like a lot of things from then, breast feeding is now mainstream, so mainstream that the major debate seems now to be whether covering up is required in public, whether companies should provide facilities for it, etc.

HaloJonesFan said...

I think it's a female-empowerment sort of thing. Other than having had the kid, what's the one thing that a woman can do that a man cannot? Breast-feed. And if there is ACTUAL SCIENTIFIC DATA that breast-feeding is better, then whoa, look out Jimmy, here come the tits!

amzbd said...

The only time I don't enjoy your blog is when you touch on breastfeeding. You really come across as defensive and hypersensitive on this issue. It doesn't reflect well on you and makes me think you feel inferior b/c a) you weren't breastfed and/or b) you didn't breastfeed. If you do feel this way, why try to perpetuate that feeling among other women whom you may be discouraging from brestfeeding?

As for the study cited...I just can't imagine that anyone thinks a baby fed food meant for a cow isn't at a disadvantage to a baby fed food meant for a human. By your desire for a "simple methodology"...maybe you can "prove" that cows are actually a whole lot smarter then we've believed? Then maybe I'd buy into the notion that there's no significant difference between formula and breastmilk.

MadisonMan said...

Oh goody -- is it that time of month when we get to criticize mothers for something that is really no one's business?

storkdoc said...

Hey everyone, remember that this study was done in the USA. Here the cohort of people that breastfeed tend to be older and well-educated. So we can't compare to third world studies of breastfeeding. There the women who breastfeed usually have no other option.

But breast milk is best for baby. The compostion changes as the baby grows. If you have a preterm baby the milk that is produced is different from what term mothers produce.

So, its the right food;
You never leave it at home;
Its always at the right temp;
Less colic;
less diarrhea;
Fewer ear infections;
Less spit up;
and lastly

It comes in such nice containers :-)

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Run away! More breast blogging!

The Drill SGT said...

another example of not only the public, but in this case also the medical community not being able to distinguish between correlation and causality.

Ann Althouse said...

Jeez, the pro-breastfeeding crowd is heavy-handed. Leave women alone. Stop the guilt-tripping.

Meade said...

Ann Althouse said...
Sorry, Meade. I wasn't breastfed.

And I've been told I was (though, who knows, even supposedly breast-feeding mothers can lie, right?)

Oh well, either way, the study would suggest neither of us have breast milk as an excuse.

George said...


Would you also contend the following:

Jeez, the medical-research establishment crowd is heavy-handed. Leave people alone. Stop the guilt-tripping.

Babies' intelligence aside, many studies do show that breast milk does offer a newborn various health benefits not provided by formula. (My understanding is that formula is excellent; it's just that human milk is a bit better.)

The purpose of the medical advice is to improve health, not create guilty feelings.

The bigger issue seems to be shock and disgust at discreet breastfeeding in stores and public spaces. Various states and communities have recently passed legislation protecting women's right to do so, after various nursing moms have been rudely thwarted.

ada47 said...

Here's an idea about why the pro-breastfeeding crowd is heavy-handed and why the myth has persisted for so long: In addition to all the educated, profession women with their own offices and the money to buy or rent a really good breat pump (disclosure: this group includes me and my friends), the pro-breastfeeding crowd also includes a lot of women who stay at home with the kids, feel rather self-righteous about it, and represent another front in the culture wars. Beleive me, these gals even try to me us pumpers feel guilty about pumping-sure the kid gets the breast milk, but somehow taking it from a rubber nipple from a paid childcare worker seems to kill all those little smart molecules normally found in breastmilk.

Anonymous said...

Drill Sgt beat me to it, but it's one of the most fundamental rules of research (especially social studies) and bears repeating. Let's all say it together:

Coincidence does not prove causality.

matt dick said...

amzbd, perhaps you never were faced with difficulty when your newborn wouldn't breastfeed properly. When my daughter was born, she had a lot of issues (perfectly healthy 7 year-old now, so no bad news) that made her unwilling to take to the breast. My wife was recovering from a C-section and didn't have the energy required to breastfeed pretty much continuously (1.5 hours to feed the girl enough, with the requirement to start feedings 2 hours apart).

So that's fine, we fed my daughter formula to keep her alive. Everyone wanted to breastfeed, but it just wasn't going to happen given the circumstances. It wouldn't have left me particularly upset if we hadn't had La Leche League representatives interjecting themselves multiple times per day into our room and early family time, amd making it clear what a bad decision my wife was making. Trust me, the last thing a woman needs within 24-hours of giving birth is a ton of guilt about not keeping her child healthy enough. We knew the state of the science with ragard to the health benefits of breast milk, and we made that clear to the Boob Nazis, but they just couldn't allow us peace over what was essentially not a choice for us.

All that having been said, I am firmly for education about the relative benefits of breast milk. It's proven (and is obvious, really) to be a better choice than formula for the health of babies. However a lot of time the choice is not between formula and breastmilk, it's between forumla and no food. The choice in that case is even more obvious.


Mortimer Brezny said...

Either way, if you're not breastfeeding your kids, you're dumb.

Coco said...

Jeez, the pro-reading books to your child crowd and the anti-lead paint crowd are really heavy handed. Stop the guilt- tripping!

Snark aside, there surely is no downside to further research into the breast feeding/intelligence connection. And even if there is no connection, the positive health aspects are enough reason to try and convince more women to breast feed, when possible. Groups like La Leche League seem to focus on the health aspect far more than any intelligence enhancing benefits.

MadisonMan said...

Coco, the LLL people that I've experienced were true Tit-Nazis -- they weren't interested in helping my wife pump, for example, because a real mother stays home, doesn't shave her armpits, and uses cloth diapers.

Maybe I'm using hyperbole. But the sad truth is that LLL tried to put each and every women in one little box. The reality is that every one is different and if they find something that works for them and their kid and their family, that's the excellent outcome you want.

LDM said...

Lo! I did'st suckle the proffered teat
while'st massaging extended feet
t'was no delectable treat
a dalliance n'er to repeat
when she called for foot and mouth to meet
-LDM (lonely donut man)

amzbd said...

Why are advocates for other examples of healthy eating never called nazis? If you fed your child chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese for every meal would you take offense when someone else fed their child a balanced meal? Why does the tone of the conversation change so dramatically when the balanced meal comes in the form of breast milk?

And this conversation is the first time I've heard of pumping moms not being supported by LLL. That makes me mad. Pumping full-time is incredibly hard and I very much admire any woman who does so. I have two close firends who have done it and I honestly don't think I would have stuck with it like they did.

Slocum said...

Why are advocates for other examples of healthy eating never called nazis?

Ah, but they definitely are -- google 'health nazis'.

By the way, from an evolutionary perspective it's not necessarily the case that breast milk will turn out to be 'the perfect food' or better than any conceivable alternative. Breast-feeding, to some extent, involves a tradeoff between what the child wants and what the mother can afford to provide and still maintain her own strength and capacity to bear more children. This is why weaning is sometimes a pitched battle throughout the animal kingdom between mother and child.

Someday it *might* be possible to do 'better than nature' by providing nutrients to the child without any concern about taking them from Mom.

Anonymous said...

A better question: why is society so hostile to something that is uniquely female?

Formula is a convenience, but it is tough to argue it is a better choice for babies or mothers than breast milk. No one wants to imagine that it's a problem to leave a bottlefed baby with a care giver for a child's intelligence or any other desirable trait. No stay at home mother wants to imagine that a $7 an hour high school drop-out can do as good a job as she can when caring for the baby.

That's the issue at the heart of this isn't it? Assuaging the guilt of working mothers and/or reaffirming the value of stay-at-home moms who already feel like second class citizens.

Bottom line, if breastfeeding is so great for kids (and I believe that it is) and moms, then there needs to be more respect and societal support for it. Let women stay home and give the kid what it needs and then let her go back to work unpenalized.

MadisonMan said...

If you fed your child chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese for every meal would you take offense when someone else fed their child a balanced meal?

That depends. Are they constantly trying to guilt me into feeding my child a balanced meal?

Coco said...

Under the definition being thrown around for "boob nazis," there are huge groups of health and wellness nazis. There are definitely smoking nazis...everywhere. There are also deadly chemical nazis, seat belt nazis, etc. Also, according to a sizable portion of the commenters on this site, there are all types of taste nazis too - movie nazis (film critics), book nazis (literary critics), and essentially any liberal who happens to live on the East Coast, in So. Cal., or in anything approaching a metropolitan area (liberal elites, should be capitalized, I know).

madison man - I don't have much experience with LLL at all - my comment was based on what I know about them generally and a perusal of their website which is mainly focused on the health benefits of breast feeding - not any supposed intelligence benefits - which was the point of my earlier post. For what its worth, in my sole isolated and antecdotal experience with them, they helped my wife with breast feeding issues by, among other things, helping her find a breast pump. This of course is not meant to cast doubt on your experience just to share mine. SInce many of the people that work for them are volunteers, it wouldn't surprise me that experiences and LLL representative "prejudices" vary wildly.

Kathy said...

My wife was recovering from a C-section and didn't have the energy required to breastfeed pretty much continuously (1.5 hours to feed the girl enough, with the requirement to start feedings 2 hours apart).

Yes, all three of my kids have eaten like this. After reading all the literature, which insists they should eat for ten minutes a side, every three hours, it was a little bit of a shock. I've had lots of well-meaning suggestions as to what I'm doing wrong, but fortunately (sort of) my first baby was preterm and never latched on well so although we did make an attempt at breastfeeding for 6 months we also bottle fed that whole time, and she took just as long drinking from the bottle as from the breast. So I didn't panic with the second one when she ate so often and for such a long time. Now I just expect it.

La Leche League is full of nuts, and I say that as someone who loves to breastfeed. I've contacted two different chapters with different problems, and in both cases the people I talked to were nuts (in other words they had an extreme view of what constitutes successful breastfeeding and expected everyone to conform, no matter their challenges). The second time I called, looking for an OB recommendation since we were in a new place and I wanted an OB who was breastfeeding-friendly, the lady kept talking and talking, trying to persuade me that I shouldn't wean my 19-month-old but should tandem nurse with the new baby.

My sister, who is a family practice doctor, had her first baby last year. Her baby also needed to eat for much longer periods of time and more often than the usual "10 minutes every three hours" and because she wasn't expecting that she gave up breastfeeding very early thinking she was having a problem. Now she warns her patients to expect that it might take more time.

Lots of the breastfeeding challenges have relatively simple solutions, especially if you have time to implement them (like letting the baby nurse for long periods frequently), but it's hard to get that information. LLL could help if they weren't so over-the-top.

George said...

Ah, Dr. Melissa has it...why is society hostile to something that is so uniquely female?

But it's not primarily society that's hostile, because most men don't think or know much about the feeding of infants.

It's one group of women who disagree with another group of women, regarding how they feed their babies.

Do women actually make cutting remarks to each other such as, "I can't believe you're not breastfeeding. Don't you know....."? And if so, the other party should stand up for herself and say, "This is why I've made my decision....etc."

Mystified Male.....

....And this all reminds me of a humor piece that was in Ms. about 30 years ago whose point was that if men got pregnant or menstruated, the experience would be a huge macho event...The same would be true of breastfeeding..."Hey, Jack, I use Nestle's XL Growth Formula Z"..."Yah, so what! I got twins, and I'm breastfeeding both! Right now!"

Pogo said...

I was breastfed on falsies.

I suppose that explains alot.

Kathy said...

I should add that I totally understand giving up on breastfeeding, especially if you have extra challenges like a difficult C-section or a preterm baby. Knowing what I know now, I probably would not have persisted in trying to breastfeed my first baby. Because of our challenges, even with the help of a lactation consultant it was an unsuccessful effort that took over my life for six months. I even had a spreadsheet to track how much formula she was getting versus how much breastmilk (pumped), and I would feel terrible when the chart showed too much formula.

All of these parenting issues, not just breastfeeding, seem to bring out the cattiness. I suppose it's because most of us feel a little insecure about what we're doing and so we get defensive if someone makes a different choice. Breastfeeding is probably just the most noticeable because it is more visible than some other parenting choices.

(And yes, I'm breastfeeding as I type this. The current baby is 1 and I can now use both hands while he eats! Do I get a prize for that???)

David said...

I remember a breast feeding friend of ours idly making a comment while nursing:

"So that is what those are for!"

The dog then found one of her breast pads and tore it too shreds!

Jim said...

The smartest women are those who manage to avoid the conundrum by staying childfree.

Joan said...

The smartest women are those who manage to avoid the conundrum by staying childfree.

That's an ugly sentiment. Heaven forbid that a smart woman become a breeder!

Johnny Nucleo said...

I was breastfed and I am a genius, but that is because genius runs in my family, not because I was breastfed. But I think breastfeeding gave me my incredible speed and agility.

MadisonMan said...

If genius runs in your family, why don't you know about regression to the mean?

Johnny Nucleo said...

Are you insulting my family, MadisonMan?

Steven said...

The health advantage to children for breastfeeding over the bottle is, while statistically significant, rather marginal; it only shows up in large populations.

Imagine, if you will, two mothers of active male eight-year-olds.

Mother 1 feeds her child the six ounces of grains, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, three cups of milk, and 5.5 ounces of meat/beans a day strictly in accordance with USDA nutritional guidelines.

Mother 2 feeds her child 5.5 ounces of grain, 2 cups of vegetables, 2.5 cups of fruit, 3 cups of milk, and 6 ounces of meat a day.

Tell me, how much pressure should mother 2 be put under to conform to the expert guidelines?

Certainly, the diet is not the official ideal, but anyone who would harass Mother 2 with the dequivalent of the New York Times headline "Breast-Feed or Else" certainly would be considered to lack a sense of proportion.

amzbd said...

"The health advantage to children for breastfeeding over the bottle is, while statistically significant, rather marginal; it only shows up in large populations."

Exactly! That's why as many moms as possible should be encouraged to breastfeed! Society as a whole benefits from each individual decision to breastfeed. I like to use the same argument as is used for pre-natal care. It's a public health argument. Pre-natal care is encouraged to reduce society's health care costs in the long term. Breastfeeding would have similar benefits if enough women did it.

Rodish said...

"Why has taken three-quarters of a century ... ."

I can think of all kinds of reasons why people wouldn't credit the idea that intelligence is heritable.

PrincessKate said...

Breastfeeding - Ugh. I'll never do it. The idea doesn't appeal to me at all, seeing it in practice doesn't appeal to me, and I think enough responsibility is dumped on women as it is without making them literally tied to a baby until it's weaning time. Formula was a great liberator.

Slac said...

That's a VERY interesting question. And I think the answer, unfortunately, has to do with an historical gender bias in the scientific community - yes, supported even by feminists.

For some reason, when it comes to the female role in reproduction, scientists have a greater tendency to latch on to totally unproven and unverified notions to support female "usefulness." If something about the female body is seen as useless, this is abhorrent to both feminists and, ironically, people who see women as useful objects.

Elisabeth Lloyd famously uncovered some of this in her book "The Case Of The Female Orgasm:
Bias In The Science Of Evolution." Although I haven't read it, recently I heard her lecture on it. By far one of the most interesting scientific lectures I've heard in a long time, perhaps ever.

You can download this lecture on the "Big Ideas" podcast produced by TVO. It should be easy to find through iTunes, but here is the link to the feed.