IQ, Intelligence, and Brain Development - Another Breastfeeding Benefit
Modern parents want to do everything they can to help their children's brain development. Never before have there been so many products and books sold that claim to help parents stimulate their baby's brain, assist in brain development, and give baby an intelligence "edge".
Recently, a variety of studies have come to light that tout the benefits of breastfeeding on brain development and intelligence.
What IS the connection between breastfeeding and intelligence?
It comes down to a couple of important things, some of which are tangible and measurable, and some that are not.
The Importance of Fats and Other Essential Nutrients
Breastmilk contains the ideal ratio of fats, amino acids and other nutrients that baby needs for brain and nervous system development. These ingredients provide the ideal basis for the "hard-wiring" component of a person's intelligence.
For instance, Taurine is an important amino acid found in high concentrations in mother's milk. (In contrast, it is almost nonexistent in cow's milk.) Taurine has an important role in the development of brain tissue, among other things. A baby's body is unable to form Taurine on its own, so s/he is totally reliant on his food to supply this.
Another important ingredient of mom's milk are fats. Breastmilk contains high amounts of important fats, such as DHA and ARA. These are very important components of brain structures, and research has shown that breastfed infants have higher concentration of these essential fats in their brain and blood than do formula fed babies.
Some artificial baby milk manufacturers are adding Taurine and DHA to their formulas, but this does not make these identical to mother's milk. Researchers have concluded that there is an important interplay between all of the components of breastmilk that cause this effect, and that this effect can't be duplicated.
Cholesterol is another ingredient found in high concentrations in breastmilk. It is needed to build tissue in the brain and nervous system. Babies need cholesterol in the first two years of life. (Incidentally, there is evidence that points to a connection between cholesterol in breastmilk and the ability to handle dietery cholesterol in adulthood.)
Studies comparing breastfed children and their formula fed peers in different ages and stages of life show time and again that breastfed infants do better on various tests of intellectual ability. Some have shown these differences persisting for many years.
Even after the differences in socioeconomic status were accounted for or eliminated in these studies, breastfed children still clearly come out ahead.
In fact, one study showed that premature infants who were breastfed had significantly higher IQs than formula fed babies, and when babies were fed a combination of breastmilk and formula, their cognitive scores were directly related to the amount of mother's milk they received.
Hormones - Both Baby's and Mom's
Mother's milk has a high level of endorphins in the first few days after birth. No doubt this helps the baby ease the transition to life outside the womb.
When babies are stressed out, their tiny bodies are in "fight or flight" mode, and essential energy is directed away from growth and development, which would have an obvious effect on the brain.
Additionally, a nursing Mom is biologically a different animal than a non-breastfeeding one.
For instance, when a woman breastfeeds, her body is flooded with pleasure hormones, one of which is Oxytocin, the so called "love hormone", that is also present during orgasm. This hormone helps her to feel relaxed and bonded with her baby. Oxytocin triggers nurturing activity, which no doubt plays a huge role in baby's cognitive and emotional development.
Since lactation suppresses the nervous system response to stressful stimuli, a happy nursing Mommy means a happy baby!
What are some of the intangible benefits that breastfeeding has on brain development and IQ?
Physical Closeness and Emotional Health
In recent years a lot of emphasis has been put on "Emotional Intelligence". How does breastfeeding assist with helping a child develop this?
The closeness of breastfeeding is an important bridge between baby's intrauterine life and his new experience of being out in the world. Studies have shown that babies who receive lots of closeness with their primary caregiver, and lots of stimulating eye contact and "conversation" are getting important brain stimulation that gadgets and toys cannot produce.
That is not to say that a formula feeding Mother doesn't do this, but a breastfeeding baby can't help but have lots of skin to skin contact and interaction with his Mother!
Breastfeeding also gives Mom a chance to reconnect with her busy crawling baby or walking toddler, who seems to spend all his time running from Mom. Having several quiet moments during the day to kiss those dimpled hands, sniff that sweet smelling head, and tickle those fat feet (that will be bigger than your own soon enough) is an important way for Mom and Baby to get that closeness.
The late Dr. Lee Salk, pediatric psychologist, said that "The baby whose cries are answered now will later be the child confident enough to show his independence and curiosity. But the baby left to cry may develop a sense of isolation and distrust, and may turn inward...later in life, this child may continue to cope with stress by trying to shut out reality."
The closeness of breastfeeding makes for a happier baby, one who is settled inside and who trusts that another human will be there to meet his needs, instead of an outside gadget. Don't we want our children learning this important lesson from infancy?
Of course, breastfeeding does not automatically guarantee that a child will be smart, but it can be a way to guarantee that a child lives up to their full genetic potential for emotional intelligence, smarts and IQ!