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In Which I Get Cranky About Breastfeeding Boosting IQ Points

A new Australian study looking at test scores from over a 1000 school children, has found that boys who were breast-fed for at least 6 months performed better academically at age 10, than boys who were breastfed for less than 6 months.

Test scores for girls showed some increase for the breast-fed set, but not nearly as remarkable as for the boys. This is not the first time breastfeeding has been linked to a boost in IQ. But this is one a few new studies looking at how boys may benefit from breastfeeding differently than girls do.

Researchers wonder if boys may benefit more from the “neuroprotective” benefits of breastmilk than girls, or if the hormones in breastmilk work differently on baby boys and baby girls. Maybe boys benefit from a particular kind of bonding that may come from long term nursing. (This last one veers dangerously close to some dodgy Freudian territory.) I am fascinated by new investigations into the way a mother’s body makes milk according to the specific needs of her children.

But.

I get a little tense when I read about breastfeeding and standardized testing in one sitting.

For the record, I think breastfeeding is great for babies and great for mothers. I’ve done it. I encourage it. I’ve even dabbled in some radical lactivism. But to bring the whole IQ thing into it gets a little complicated. First of all, accounting for all the other variables is a very tricky business. Bit there’s something more insidious happening: Suddenly this normal physiological part of making and nurturing a baby has (often inadvertently) been swept into the competitive, anxiety-producing world of optimal brain development and test prep. Advocates for breastfeeding have the very best intentions when they talk about how breastmilk makes kids smart. But, sadly, these promotional pep talks can have some harsher consequences. And it’s not just guilt for the formula feeders. It tweaks the mind set of the breastfeeders, too.

The culture of “optimizing” all conditions surrounding your spawn can very quickly degrade your confidence and sense of joy about all this stuff. Suddenly, the INNATE and powerful love you have for your baby has been parceled out into these categories of achievement: when you talk gently to your newborn you’re not being a typical adoring mother, you’re triggering activity in the language centers of the baby’s brain! When you nurse your baby, you aren’t feeding her, you’re charging up her immune system! You are doing these things, sure. But to draw them out as items on a check-list can just add so much unnecessary pressure.

I guess my point is: breastfeed because it’s a great healthy thing to do. Not to get your kid into Harvard. Seriously, he was JUST born. Let’s leave standardized testing out of it for now. Believe me it will get to you eventually.

The fact is low rates in breastfeeding in the US have nothing to do with mothers not caring about their baby’s intelligence and a lot more to do with two things: a widespread cultural squeamishness about breasts as non-sexual objects (it’s OK to have a hot rack, but nursing a baby is icky); and serious lack of basic, institutional support for new breastfeeding moms.

So, if you’re wondering whether to breastfeed, know this: it’s healthy. It can be very hard in the beginning and you will need good support. Do what you can to negotiate the feelings and pressures brought up by our Hooters-friendly, nursing-averse culture. This can be a thoughtful and productive time for women who feel conflicted about the purpose of their breasts and bodies. It’s not always easy, so take your time with it. I think the key thing to remember is that you are a sexy woman and a nurturing mother. You don’t have to choose. You may be more or less of one of these identities at any given time. But you don’t have to pick a side here. We’re amazing creatures, dammit. Or, to paraphrase Chaka Khan, you’re every woman.

photo: cobalt123/flickr

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