A study has shown that breastfed babies have higher IQs, spend longer in education and earn more in their careers - but there are too many variables and women should not be pressurised Another reason for mothers to breastfeed
If there’s one thing we as a society love to do, it’s to have a good go at mothers. Be they single or working, everyone loves to voice an opinion about how to raise children, and unfortunately it’s mothers who tend to bear the brunt of this, rather than fathers. Health professionals are not free from the habit either. We dish out advice to expectant and new mothers and then wag our fingers when it’s not heeded. Do this, don’t do that and never mind that what we say always seems to change and contradict itself. Keep up now, mums, or you’ll be responsible for a generation of feral youths.
Nowhere is the unrelenting pressure mothers are under more evident than in the arena of breastfeeding. This one biological act has become politicised and polarised like no other. Don’t breastfeed your children and you are condemning them to a life of illness and disease, mothers are told. And now, according to research published last week, they’ll also be thick.
A Brazilian study of more than 6,000 babies from a variety of backgrounds showed that those who were breastfed had higher IQs, spent longer in education and earned more in their careers. The longer they were breastfed as a baby, the greater their success. The research was immediately pounced on, feeding in, as it does, to the narrative that problems in a person’s life can be laid wholly at the feet of the mother.
Doctors and midwives have had a difficult time with breastfeeding.
On the one hand it is undoubtedly a good thing and women should be supported and helped if they choose to do it. But what is less often talked about is the stress and difficulty that many women experience with breastfeeding, compounded by the sense that they are failing their children immeasurably if they do not do it. The evidence morphs into dogma that says women are irresponsible if they don’t breastfeed.
The research itself is never questioned or queried. But just how reliable is the latest study on breastfeeding and IQ anyway? It’s a very well-designed project, ambitious in its scope and size. But when it comes to something like breastfeeding, there are so many confounding factors – variables that can inadvertently skew the result and lead us to false conclusions. Because the problem is, the health benefits associated with breastfeeding are also associated with things such as class, wealth and education of the parents.
When factors such as social background are taken into account, the evidence supporting the health benefits of breastfeeding suddenly looks less robust. We know that those who are economically and socially advantaged are more likely to breastfeed, so it is perfectly possible it’s actually the positive aspects of wealth and class we are observing, not the positive aspects of breastfeeding. Of course, this particular study took place in Brazil, which is socially very different to the UK, so again it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from it.
When it comes to IQ, things get even more complicated. The study is a retrospective analysis, meaning it tested people’s IQ 30 years on from when they were actually breastfed. Over that time an incredible number of variables would have influenced the result, so it’s impossible to say from the way this study is designed whether or not the apparent increased IQ is really the result of breastfeeding, or due to some other factor.
Certainly the findings are interesting, but it is in no way concrete evidence. Rather, it is simply the first in a long, complex series of studies that would need to be done to differentiate between simple association or actual causation.
But the breastfeeding lobby seems too narrow-minded and dogmatic to allow for such caveats or critiques to the research they use to browbeat nervous mothers-to-be.
The “Breast Is Best” mantra was intended to be a liberating, pithy riposte to the slick commercial formula milk advertising, yet it has become a stick with which to beat women. It would be awful if expectant or new mothers read this research and felt under yet more pressure to breastfeed if they are unable to do so. I would far rather have a mother who was bottle-feeding a baby and felt calm and relaxed than one who was depressed and anxious about the fact she was not lactating adequately. Motherhood is stressful enough without feeling the weight of your child’s entire future rests on your breasts.
- Daily Telegraph