….Or Yale. Don’t want to spark a battle over alma maters, here.
The newest study on breastfeeding and intelligence comes out of the University of Southampton, where researchers suggested that “breastfed babies are smarter because their mothers are clever, not because of the nutritional benefits of breast milk.”
This isn’t really that newsworthy, considering another British study made the same claim in 2006. But I immediately cringed at the vague, misleading text of the study’s press release:
…The researchers followed 241 children from birth until four years old to investigate the relationship between breastfeeding and the use of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) fortified formula in infancy, and performance in tests of intelligence…The researchers found that after they had taken account of the influence of mothers’ intelligence and level of education there was no relationship between the estimated total intake of DHA in infancy and a child’s IQ…
I was not at all surprised when folks started Tweeting about their confusion and anger over this study. It seemed like a huge leap to take a study about DHA and use it to suggest that previous beliefs over the IQ-boosting benefits of breastfeeding were null and void – even to me. Really.
But then I started thinking… perhaps these U of Southampton researchers were just responding to previous research, without us laypeople knowing the whole backstory. Kind of like the Spears-Timberlake dance-offs of yore. Some scientist made one phat move (do the kids still say “phat”? God, I am so old), so the Southampton posse had to bust out an even cooler interpretation of the same move… In other words: was DHA the issue all along? If so, then proving that the DHA in breastmilk does not make us smarter would actually be – dare I say it – a pretty significant find.
I turned to Dr. Sears for an explanation on just how the breastfeeding camp believes that mother’s milk can raise intelligence, and found this. He does outline several theories (not sure exactly what research he’s using to back these up, but hey, he’s Dr. Sears, so it probably doesn’t matter), but first and foremost is – you guessed it – the presence of DHA in breastmilk:
Although intellectual differences between breastfed and formula-fed children used to be attributed to the increased holding and interaction associated with breastfeeding and to the fact that mothers who breastfed were better educated and/or more child-centered, new evidence shows that there are nutrients in breastmilk that enhance brain growth…One key ingredient in breastmilk is a brain-boosting fat called DHA (docasahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid. DHA is a vital nutrient for growth, development, and maintenance of brain tissue. Autopsy analysis of brain tissue from breastfed and formula-fed infants shows that the brains of breastfed babies have a higher concentration of DHA, and DHA levels are highest in babies who are breastfed the longest. Infant formulas made in the United States do not contain DHA.
(Okay… just taking a moment here to suggest that the good doctor think about updating his website. Infant formulas made in the United States most certainly DO contain DHA. I know this for a fact, because when we were struggling to find a formula our baby could tolerate, we found something online that suggested some kids might be sensitive to the algae source of DHA favored by infant formula manufactures. We had to search and search to find a formula that DIDN’T have the DHA/ARA blend (for the record, Nestle’s Good Start makes a version without it). I’m not sure at what point these became industry standard, but it has been at least more than a year, since my kid is now 14 months; I’ve worked for several websites, none of them with half the money or notoriety of AskDrSears.com, and this kind of inaccurate information would never have been allowed. We updated at least once every fiscal quarter. So get with the program, Bill.)
Knowing that DHA was supposedly the magic ingredient in past examinations of breastmilk and intelligence, the (admittedly confusing) statements of the Southampton research team make a bit more sense. I then found an article from the UK’s Times Online which goes into more detail about this study:
Previous trials have shown that infants fed on formula milk tend to have lower intelligence and the IQ difference has frequently been put down to a deficit of an omega 3 fatty acid, known as DHA, that is normally found in lower concentrations in formula milk….However, scientists at the Univerisity of Southampton, found no evidence of a link between intelligence and breastfeeding once the mother’s social class and IQ were taken into account.
The researchers analysed data from 241 children and their mothers in the UK, dividing the babies into three groups — breastfed, those fed with formulas fortified with MHA and those fed unfortified formulas.
The breastfed babies performed significantly better than those given unfortified milk. But once the impact of social class and inherited IQ were taken in to account, breastfeeding appeared to have no affect on intelligence.
Since the babies given fortified milk were fed with a number of brands, with a range of concentrations of MHA, the researchers also looked for a direct correlation between total MHA intake and IQ at the age of four, but again found no link.
“Factors in the home, such as the mother’s intelligence and what mental stimulation children receive, were the most important influences on their IQ,” said Dr Gale.
Anyway. I hope that clarifies some of the confusion over this newest breastfeeding headline; I’m logging off to get some sleep now. Because studies show that getting a good night’s rest boosts intellectual performance. And I can use all the help I can get – my stupid Blogger account doesn’t have the spell check option, and I am sick to death of finding typos in my late-night rants.