Breastfeeding and IQ

I often tiptoe around the breastfeeding issue. I don’t want to make a huge deal about the benefits because I obviously don’t think children who grow up on formula are doomed to a life of menial labor and eczema. Breastfeeding is one choice among so many choices mothers make on how to raise their babies, and so I leave mothers to make their own decisions and hope they grant me the same courtesy.

All that being said, I do think breastfeeding is incredible. And when I read studies like the one appearing in JAMAPediatrics today, I give myself a mental pat on the back for having nursed both my daughters.

The Harvard study links breastfeeding and intelligence, showing children scoring higher on IQ tests if they were breastfed. The longer and more exclusively breastfed they were, the higher they scored. Check out the details here.

To be clear, this study links IQ and breastfeeding through association, not cause and effect. It doesn’t necessarily mean breastfeeding makes kids smarter. There are a million other factors that could be at work here such as the socio-economic or genetic background of the mothers who choose to breastfeed.

I believe, however, breast milk is just about as magical an elixir as we could ever find or create. It builds strong minds, strong bodies and a strong bond between mother and child. And studies suggesting I’m doing something right as a mother are few and far between, so I took a moment to congratulate myself on breastfeeding.

After my moment of unabashed mommy pride, I started wondering if studies like this one make other moms feel they have somehow let down their children. I know lots of wonderful mothers who were unable to breastfeed for whatever reason — logistics, medicine or physical inability. The desire was there, but sometimes the need to just get any kind of milk in that newborn’s belly trumps mom’s ideals.

And you know what? Those babies are going to grow up just as happy, smart and healthy as any other baby. There are so many decisions that mothers have to make that will determine who and what their children become. We will likely never even know which decisions were actually good, bad or trivial.

So to moms who breastfeed, I say good job. Keep it up. And to moms who don’t, I say good job. Keep it up. I was lucky to breastfeed both my daughters. It was the right choice for us. I cherish every moment of those years and am sad that I won’t have that experience with our next (fingers crossed) adopted son or daughter. But just like every child, every mothering experience is different. Who knows what will shape or define each child — what will increase their IQ by two points or 50? As long as I love that child and make every decision the best I can in the moment, I’ve done my job — and so has every mother out there.

What are your thoughts on breastfeeding and IQ? How did you decide whether to nurse or not?


  1. Cat

    How did I decide to nurse or not? Well, the first two was easy. I nursed until my work and health situation made it impossible to do it and care for my family. With the other 4, nature chose for me. Postpartum depression made it impossible for me to produce enough to feed any of my babies. I never could get enough no matter what I did. My family and doctors were supportive of my decision to quit. It was strangers that were critical. One doctor that I saw for an unrelated issue told me that I just hadn’t tried hard enough and that if I put more effort into it, I could be successful. I was tempted to hand him my baby and let him have a go at it and see how successful he could be if he “just tried hard enough”. I had one person tell me that I was feeding my baby poison by feeding them formula. Sometimes it felt like I would get attacked if you nursed your baby in public (even if you’re covered up and no one can see anything but baby feet sticking out from underneath a blanket) or if I whipped out a bottle and fed my baby while cuddling them close to me.

    As for the health benefits of nursing – if you can, it’s a great start to a healthy life, however it’s not the end all be all of how smart, healthy and disease free you are going to be for the rest of it.

  2. Momof7

    Due to several issues, I was unable to nurse my first baby. It was a very traumatic experience. When number two came along, I was planning on breast feeding him. Unfortunately because of all the negative memories, I pretty much had a nervous breakdown trying . My husband told me to quit. That was the best decision for me and my child. The third was automatically given a bottle. Each child after that, I spent 9 months trying to convince myself that I should and would breastfeed them. Even going so far as to use ointments etc. to prep my nipples. Each time I just could not do it. I had plenty of guilt because of my decision I still feel guilty and uncomfortable when other mothers are talking about breastfeeding. Every time an article about this comes out, I once again feel guilty. Fortunately I have a husband who remembers why we chose to bottle feed and helps me remember that overall, I needed to bottle feed. Perhaps my children are not as smart as they would have been if breast fed but they are all good students.

    • Cat

      Momof7 – Stop beating yourself up. Breastfeeding is just one factor in a long list of factors that makes up intelligence. My non-breastfed kids are just as smart as my breastfed kids (in some ways smarter). You made decisions that were best for you and your family. You didn’t make them selfishly. You tried you best and your best is different from someone elses best.

  3. MP

    Hi Erin, I have been following your blog for years. I rarely comment on blogs, but breastfeeding strikes a special cord in my heart. I was totally and completely blindsided by how difficult breastfeeding actually is. The first 12 weeks were absolutely unbearable. I had survived 32 hours of unmedicated labor, and the pain that I experienced in those first 12 weeks of breastfeeding easily rivaled the worst of my labor pains. On top of that, I had to go back to work full time at 3 weeks post-partum. Luckily I had a wonderful (female) boss who understood my need to drive home every two hours to feed my baby (and some days let me work from home for the first 6 weeks). My husband would need to literally restrain me each time I latched her on, as the pain made it nearly impossible for me to keep ahold of my newborn (without tossing her across the room). U endured three bouts of mastitis and a terrible case of thrush. At one point, the physical trauma was so awful, I was sent to the local “wound and trauma” center for skin graft to repair damaged vascular tissue. I was relegated to only pumping from that side, and continuing to feed my baby from the other. I just kept telling myself “don’t quit on a bad day because tomorrow could be the first good day”. Then, one day around 4 months post partum, like magic, the pain disappeared. Through sheer determination and unbelievable stubborness, my daughter was provided only breastmilk until 6 months old. Looking back, I cannot believe that I survived those terrible first few months, but I am more proud of this accomplishment than anything else I can think of. Today, at 12 months, we are still happily nursing, and as a mother who works full time, I cherish every quiet (and some not so quiet) moment of nursing. Like Erin said, few articles are published that support parenting choices I have made, so when I see news such as this, I realize that all that pain and tears where worth it 🙂

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