Breastfeeding isn't the key to a brainy baby after all

Sep 29, 2015 at 1:22 p.m. ET
Image: Sturti/Getty Images

Breastfeeding has long been touted as a practically magical cure-all for each of society's ills — a way to create your own little higher being who is smarter, stronger and healthier than his peers. A new study shows that while breastfeeding has its obvious benefits, a more intelligent baby is not one of them.

Every new mom has to decide whether she'll breastfeed or not, and in the process of researching her options, she'll come across all kinds of information. It's enough to make anyone's head spin, let alone a hormonal pregnant lady or new mom.

Overwhelmingly, though — particularly in recent years — breastfeeding has been elevated over formula feeding because of its benefits, which have been said to include thin moms, healthy babies and smarter children. It has become not a question of "are you going to breastfeed?" but "why wouldn't you breastfeed?"

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Well, if you've ever imagined that some of these claims sound a little too good to be true, you're right on the money. A new, large-scale study shows that not only is the link between breastfeeding and IQ hugely overblown, it's nonexistent.

As in, there is no link.

TEDS, or the Twins Early Development Study, is an initiative that follows the long-term growth and development of 13,000 pairs of twins born in the U.K. and Wales between 1994 and 1996. The latest finding? Breastfeeding has no long-term effect on intelligence and practically no short-term benefit either. According to the study:

"...girls who had been breastfed scored significantly higher IQ in early life at the age of 2 years compared to girls who had not been breastfed. However, the observed effect was statistically weak and not observed in boys."

Is this really that surprising? Any person with the ability to think critically can tell you that while breastfeeding is good for a baby, it only represents anywhere between six months and a few years of your child's life. Surely what comes after — a child's opportunities, parental involvement and education — plays a bigger part in intelligence.

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There is a massive amount of pressure on moms to breastfeed. Sometimes that pressure takes a turn for the sinister. The discussion flips from "here's a great thing you can do for your kid" to "if you don't do this thing, you're playing an active role in damaging your child," when the truth of the matter is that it's largely irrelevant whether your baby is fed from the breast or the bottle.

One researcher on the study, Dr. Sophie von Stumm, sums it up best, saying, 

"It's important to keep in mind that while our study does not indicate a link between breastfeeding and intelligence, breastfeeding potentially has other benefits, for example, for the development of children's autoimmune system.

That said, mothers should be aware that they are not harming their child if they choose not to, or cannot, breastfeed - being bottlefed as an infant won't cost your child a chance at a university degree later in life."

This isn't even the first time a study has shown the benefits of breastfeeding to be vastly overstated. Too often, minor statistic correlations between breast milk (or baby wearing or bed-sharing) and better babies become a massive stick to beat moms with, which is ugly enough to begin with. When it's other moms doing the walloping, it's downright unbearable.

More: Gym tells moms breastfeeding babies isn't allowed in its locker room

So what do we do with this information? Nothing, really. If you want to breastfeed, fantastic. It has lots of benefits and can be a great bonding experience. If you want to bottle-feed, fantastic. It has its own benefits and can be a great bonding experience.

The only change anyone needs to make is this: If you feel self-righteous and smug that your child will be the next Einstein because you're breastfeeding and are judging the parents who aren't following suit, you can go ahead and walk that back now.

In fact, we all need to bring the "better baby" competition down a few notches. Babies are people, not machines, and there is no magical way to feed little coins into them so that a functional, intelligent adult pops out. Every human is a big old mess of variables, circumstance, genetics and experiences. That's what makes them human. There are practically infinite ways your kid could turn out on the other side of childhood.

You will play your part in that, for better or worse, but breastfeeding won't.