One of the benefits of breastfeeding commonly listed is that it makes babies smarter. Although the research on this belief is somewhat controversial, the estimate is that babies who are breastfed grow up to be on average 7-10 points higher in IQ than their non-breastfed peers. Breastfeeding has also been link to children with higher grades in school and the advantage gained is greater the longer you breastfeed your baby.
There were some counter-arguments that breastfeeding does not lead to smarter babies but that, on average, the mothers of breastfed babies generally had higher IQ, education level and socioeconomic status than mothers of non-breastfed babies which tended to skew the results. A study released in 2008 – the largest to date – however concluded that there is a link between prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding and children with higher IQ.
The question now is why that is so – is it the components of breast milk or something in the way breastfeeding mothers handle their babies that affects intelligence? Health News suggests the following reasons as to why breastfed infants are smarter:
- Breast milk contains fatty acids and other nutrients that are necessary for the development of babies.
- Physical and emotional aspects of breastfeeding may lead to permanent improvements in brain development.
- Breastfeeding may increase verbal interaction between mother and child which could aid development.
Look at the typical nursing session:
- The baby is latched successfully onto the mother’s left breast and suckles for a few minutes of serious “work”. Then Mom and her baby lock eyes and mom begins to softly talk or whisper to the baby. At this time, the baby gazes up and to his left.
- Mom may even pick up her infant’s tiny left hand and massage it and play with it. The baby’s hand may start to pat her breast, or his hand meets her free hand and they play together. Notice that while latched to Mom’s left breast, the baby explores with his left hand and is being stroked and soothed on the left side of his body.
- Now having finished nursing on the left breast, the baby is switched to the right breast. The social interchange continues. This time, however, the sensation received, and the exploration he is free to do, happen on his right side, and his eye gaze is up and to his right.
Unlike bottle nursing, there is little or no interaction with the baby during feeding because the baby is usually held on the carer’s preferred side (most people have a preferred side on which to carry the baby which influences the side of the baby that gets stimulated) – usually the non-dominant side – while the bottle is held in the dominant hand. Physical interaction with the baby is limited because the carer has no “free” hand to stroke or play with the baby.
The significance of this is related to the corpus callosum – a band of fibers in the brain connecting the two hemispheres. The better the formation of the corpus callosum, the better the integration between information processed in the left and right hemispheres. Activities that encourage crossing of the midline of the body helps to build the corpus callosum. For instance, in the breastfeeding example above:
- the breastfed infant is switching eye gaze, at one breast crossing the midline of his body to have both eyes gaze left, and later crossing the midline of his body to have both eyes gaze right, and,
- the breastfed infant might reach alternating arms and hands across his body when feeding on each side to tug on Mom’s necklace or pull of her glasses.
Although this is purely anecdotal, what is shown to be true is that breastfed mothers tended to talk more to their babies and this can lead to smarter babies.
However, a study cited by Rhonda Mahony on a group of preemies found that “tests given to 300 of the children when they were seven and a half to eight years old found that those who had been fed their mother’s breastmilk as newborns had a significantly higher IQ score than those who had gotten no breastmilk. The hospital staff fed all the preemies through a tube, so if there was an IQ effect, it was caused by the breastmilk itself, not the act of breastfeeding.” However, this was a rather small study.
Moral of the story?
If you can breastfeed your baby, then do so. If you can’t, try to express as much of your milk as possible for as long as possible. If you can’t, bottle feed your baby as closely as possible to the way you would breastfeed a baby – talk to your baby and switch sides!
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