Posted by: Ticktock | May 12, 2008

Breastfeeding Raises IQ?


Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me… the insufferable NPR news quiz asked this week’s player whether breastfeeding raises IQ.  Before the quiz they always say that they aren’t responsible for getting the facts correct, and that anyone who wants to complain should have their own quiz show… or blog. 

Now that Mother’s Day is over, I want to take a closer look at this statement of fact made by the folks at NPR.  Is it really true that breastfeeding RAISES the I.Q. of children?  Are we to think that formula-fed babies are at an intelligence disadvantage?

A team of scientists from King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA that breastmilk may increase I.Q. depending on whether the child has a certain gene that affects how fatty acids are processed.  The  FADS2 gene seemed to be common in those breastfed babies with higher I.Q.s, which were, on average, six to seven points higher than those of nonnursed kids with similar genetics.  A total population of 3000 children from both England and New Zealand were tested.  Formula companies haver reacted to this study by adding fatty acids to their formula, which may nullify the claim that breastmilk is naturally better than formula.

Canada’s McGill University did a study on 14,000 children and found similar data that breastfeeding correlates to a higher I.Q.  These researchers pointed out that children who were fed exclusively breastmilk for at least the first three months had (at the age of six) I.Q. scores on average 5.9 points higher than those who didn’t breastfeed as children.  These researchers are quick to point out that these results only show a link, and not the causal factors of the link.  It may be fatty acids or it may be mother-child bonding during feeding sessions.  Or, it may be something else entirely.  Michael S. Kramer, the biologist heading up the McGill study, went so far as to actually say, “Prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding makes kids smarter”.

I don’t know what to think of the data showing a correlation between breastfeeding and intelligence.  It seems like parents who feed their children naturally are possibly more inclined to parent differently.  There seems to be other factors involved than just fatty acids and their receptors, but if that is the sole factor, then it can’t be said that breastfeeding actually MAKES your children smarter- as has been claimed by various publications and quiz shows.  In any case, we as parents are constantly being challenged that our way is not good enough, or that we need to make our kids better, smarter, and more creative.  And, in an effort to keep up with the Jones’, we are over-committing our children and hyper-obsessing over studies such as the one’s mentioned here. 

Soy formulas are just one of the many ways that parents overcompensate for their children.  I’ve heard more than one parent of a baby with colic who switched to soy formulas in fear that their children are lactose intolerant.  This is a form of self-diagnosis, where parents try to link any possible cause to the constant crying in their children.  It’s easy to point to breastmilk as the causal factor to colic because that’s the only thing that baby’s eat, but there is no evidence that switching to soy will prevent colic or make the symptoms any easier for those babies who suffer from it.  Very few children are actually lactose intolerant, and yet pediatricians recommend the switch to soy to satisfy worried parents.

I am interested to hear what many of you think about the correlations between breastfeeding and intelligence.  Is it malarky?  Or have the scientists actually found something significant here?



  1. I think the findings have to be a big coincidence, or as you were saying, some related but non-causal factor. I was fed exclusively on formula, and was reading at 2 years old, writing and doing math at 3. When my IQ was tested as a child, it was quite high (though I don’t remember the specific number). My brother was also fed exclusively on formula and is smarter than most people I know. Conversely, I know several people who were fed exclusively on breastmilk and really aren’t all that bright.

    I think it can be attributed to the home environment. My brother and I were raised in a home that stressed intellectual achievement and a strong work ethic, while the people who were breastfed were often neglected as children by their parents and left largely without direction. It doesn’t seem surprising that early gains in intelligence are seen in homes where kids are given more attention or direction. I’d be interested to see what the homelives of the kids in the study were like.

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