Why is breastfeeding linked with a child’s cognitive development?
Numerous studies have shown that mothers who breastfeed tend to have more advanced educations, better financial resources, and more social support. In addition, they are more likely to provide their kids with lots of cognitive stimulation. So if you take a large, random sample of babies, one breastfed and the other not, you’ll find that babies in the breastfeeding group are getting more than mother’s milk. They are also, on average, getting more of the family advantages that lead to higher academic achievement.
But which of these advantages matters most, and what role, if any, does breast milk play?
To answer these questions, Benjamin Gibbs and Renata Forste dug into a large database tracking 7500 American children from infancy through the preschool years.
They had records on children beginning at 9 months. The records included information about early feeding experiences and cognitive development. They also had data about socioeconomic status, family circumstances, mothers’ educational attainment, and parenting practices.
Armed with this information, the researchers examined which variables were linked with math and reading skills in the children when they were four years old. The results?
There was a weak correlation between being predominantly breastfed and attaining, at age 4, higher-than-average early math skills. There was a more definite link between breastfeeding and pre-literacy skills (like phonological awareness, knowledge of letters, and word recognition).
However, both of these associations vanished when the researchers factored in two factors:
• How often mothers said they read to their children, even in infancy
• How “tuned in” parents appeared to be to their children’s gestures, expressions, and signals.
The second factor was assessed by watching mothers interact with their children during a 15-minute play session when the kids were two years old. Mothers were judged to be more sensitive if they seemed responsive and aware of their 2-year-olds’ needs, moods, interests and abilities.
The pattern held regardless of mothers’ educational level, and, interestingly, mothers’ apparent attempts to make the playtime encounter more cognitively stimulating were not predictive of long-term cognitive outcomes. I can’t help wondering if the sort of behavior that counted as “stimulating” in this test was actually a bit fussy and intrusive. Recent experiments suggest that toddlers become less thoughtful when adults tell them how to play.
What does it all mean? The results are broadly similar to those of another recent study that controlled for family factors. But that research didn’t take a detailed look at how parents interacted with their kids, so it didn’t reveal what specific parenting tactics are predictive of cognitive development.
With this study, we’ve got a more fine-grained picture of what’s going on. It doesn’t tell us that breastfeeding offers no benefits. In fact, quite aside from the health perks and the benefits of skin-to-skin contact for young babies, research on brains and behavior suggests that breastfeeding can enhance maternal sensitivity, making mothers more attuned and responsive to their kids.
But breastfeeding doesn’t guarantee that a mother will show high levels of sensitivity. Nor is it required. And when it came to environmental factors that supported early childhood academic skills in this study, it was parental sensitivity and family reading time, not breastfeeding, that really seemed to matter.
People like to say “breast is best.” Are we ready to say “being sensitive and responsive to a child’s developing mind is best” ?
It’s not a catchy slogan, but if we want to give kids an emotional and intellectual boost in life, it’s more to the point.