Don’t get me wrong — I’m a huge fan of breastfeeding. I devote swaths of print in Parenting for Peace to the reasons and ways it contributes to raising a peaceful (i.e., empathic, innovative, flexible, self-regulating, and yes, intelligent) generation. But I frankly get annoyed when media trumpets the connection between breastfeeding and IQ, when it is social intelligence we desperately need for the survival of our human family!
Yes, Boston Children’s hospital followed 1,300 mothers and their children and found that children who nursed for the first year gained 4 IQ points as measured at ages 3 and 7. One of my heroes, Dimitri Christakis (who deliciously announced findings some years back that Baby Einstein is more likely to make your child a Homer Simpson than an actual Einstein…be still my heart!) put these findings connecting breastfeeding and IQ into a broader perspective in his characteristically sage manner:
There are some benefits of breast-feeding that have been very clearly shown [including reduced risk of diarrhea, ear infections and eczema]. The issue of the link between breast-feeding and intelligence has been hotly debated for a long time, and the promise of cognitive ability, educational achievement and what it may lead to may encourage more women to breast-feed. Four points at a population level means a lot.
Breastfeeding for (Social) Intelligence
Leading-edge brain development science explains that our attunement, our engaged emotional availability to our baby during those close connection times such as breastfeeding, is as critically important for her growing brain as calories—even more so! Breastfeeding—or bottle-feeding—isn’t a time to exit energetically and put mothering on autopilot while watching TV, talking on the phone, or chatting with guests. Imagine you and your partner are in a most intimate moment together, and he or she switches on the TV or invites a friend in to sit and chat while you’re engaged in this intimacy! In short, it’s no longer intimacy. Rapport erodes rather than deepens (not to mention that resentment gradually seeps in). Feeding time is an exquisite opportunity for you and your baby to learn each other, which is the heart of true intimacy.
Aside from the extraordinary biochemistry of breast milk, one aspect of nourishment that is featured in breastfeeding that can sometimes be missing in formula feeding (think, propped or self-held bottle) is the physical closeness and…the GAZE. Twentieth-century poet Rainier Maria Rilke said it so perfectly, you’d think he had a degree in twenty-first century developmental neurobiology: “Face to face with you, I am born in the eye.” That, in a nutshell, is what happens in the parent-child connection. The baby needs us to really see her, for it is within that gaze that truly miraculous things happen — including the connection between breastfeeding and IQ, and many others forms of intelligence.
First and foremost, the baby is mirrored. Famed pediatrician and psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott said, “The baby’s first mirror is the mother’s face.” It’s from the expressions on his mother’s face that a baby experiences, “Ah, I’m delightful, I’m wonderful, I’m worthy of love”—not at first in words, of course, but in the elixir of pleasure hormones that flows when Mama responds in an attuned way to his cues. This is how he begins to put together a “self” for himself. Psychologist John Breeding invites parents to embrace their children with “eyes of delight.”
The depth of seeing that takes place in a securely connected interaction — and so often this happens during breastfeeding — goes beyond what the eyes exchange. When a parent is responsively attuned, he or she communicates to the child, “I see all of you, even on the inside.” And more than that, “I share what you’re experiencing.” Dan Siegel, one of the leaders in attachment neurobiology research distills it into the rather lyrical notion of feeling felt. The early experience of feeling felt by an attachment figure is a foundation for the child’s developing capacities for empathy, compassion and true intimacy. And intelligence!!
Impediments to Breastfeeding and IQ
Given the evidence about the comprehensive benefits of nursing our babies, I continue to be baffled about why there’s so much ambivalence about breastfeeding. Why do mothers wrestle with the choice of will I or won’t I breastfeed? And I actually stand corrected on that point by Dr. Christakis:
The problem in the U.S. is not so much that women don’t start breastfeeding, it’s that they don’t sustain it. It’s time to start making it easier and more acceptable for women to breast-feed for longer.
Indeed, we don’t make it easy for mothers to breastfeed. The ways our culture makes breastfeeding ever more difficult range from the insidiously subtle (hospitals’ goody-bags full of formula) to the outrageously overt (Bill Maher’s infamous rant equating breastfeeding — “a private thing” — with “farting or masturbating or pissing”). Don’t you find it odd that in today’s culture of boob worship everywhere we look — online, TV, billboards, every possible form of media — that breastfeeding can still manage to rattle our chains around modesty and propriety? This hypocrisy is vividly captured in the societal microcosm (or is it by now its own macrocosm??) of Facebook, where you can find myriad boob photos (and more), but where breastfeeding mothers have faced capricious, arbitrary harassment for years.
I have often wondered if maybe it isn’t an issue of our fairly coarse sensibilities about revealing the body…but an issue of something deeper? Rather than the amount of bare breast revealed (usually not much), I propose that it’s the startling intimacy of breastfeeding that can stir discomfort when a mother nurses in public (even when that “public” is family and friends within a home!). Mother and baby respond to each other physically, emotionally, hormonally, while in direct skin-to-skin contact. In the minds of many, this is unconsciously associated with sexual activity — something that should indeed happen in private.
This is touchy territory indeed, and requires that we navigate many delicate balances. It is ground where beliefs, fears, neuroses, love and ideals collide. And now the dilemma of the link between breastfeeding and IQ. Raise this topic at The View table and you’re guaranteed to get a rant from Whoopie, who consistently equates support of breastfeeding with bullying women and making them feel like failures if they can’t or don’t do it. (I have come to rely upon my DVR’s fast-forward button at these annoyingly recurring moments!)
Breastfeeding and IQ: A No-Brainer
As an adopted baby it was a given that I would be bottle-fed. But I knew nothing of such social arrangements; babies arrive with breast milk, this elixir of life, as their birthright. Thus, I found nursing my son and daughter especially precious. And though they are now adults, I still enjoy a certain abiding confidence gained by having breastfed them. Deep connection and trust were established through the joy of our nursing relationship that helped very much once the teen years arrived with their tender challenges—in a manner that was out of their conscious awareness but very much in mine.
The connection goes much further than breastfeeding and IQ. We cannot overestimate the effects of breastfeeding in helping create a foundation of peaceful security, joyful comfort and enhanced brainpower for the child—effects that endure lifelong. It is a mighty component of healthy, flourishing social intelligence.
 Perry, Bruce. “Nature and Nurture of Brain Development: How Early Experience Shapes Child and Culture.” In From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Neurobiology of Emotional Trauma. Los Angeles, 2003.
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I’m the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak on prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my book I’ve been visiting many wonderful groups and conferences around the world, and I’m happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As well as good old parenting stuff. As a special gift to Mothering readers I’m offering “A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool.”