IQ, breast-feeding and hot housing

by Apr 3, 2012Attunement, Breastfeeding0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
An interesting new study by Maria Iacovou, and colleagues from Essex and Oxford Universities, strongly suggests that babies who are fed on demand perform better academically than their counterparts who are fed according to  a strictly timed schedule. For example they scored 4 or 5 points higher on IQ tests at aged 8. This was a large-scale study of over 10,000 babies and so these results not to be sniffed at, and we might usefully speculate about why these effects were seen. An obvious answer is that babies who are fed on demand are having an experience of being sensitively attuned to, empathised with and understood, which in turn leads to developing a strong sense of agency, a belief that they have some control over their destinies and that significant others will be responsive to them. These are all effects also seen in securely attached children, who incidentally also tend to have higher IQ’s. One might assume that demand fed babies are likely to be less passive than those fed on strict schedules. They are also harder work for the parents, as this study in fact attests to, and much more emotionally demanding. The mothers who fed on demand scored lower on most of the wellbeing measures used. This is quite a conflict and another sign of how the interests of mothers and babies are by no means identical, an idea most rigorously developed by Robert Trivers’ ‘parent-offspring conflict’.

It is interesting that the samples of Romanian orphans studied by Rutter and others who were later adopted often had huge increases in IQ in the following years, especially those adopted younger, in one sample the average IQ increased from 63 to 107. Something similar was found in Tiffany Field’s sample of babies whose mothers were depressed, and the babies that scored worse on cognitive tests a few years later were the ones with mothers who were more withdrawn and less interactive. This is not new of course. As early as the 1930’s Harold Skeels observed children in deprived orphanages who were then transferred to more caring environments. Within 18 months their average IQ’s had shot up 29 points, and those later adopted improved even more.

Responsive, loving, empathic care is obviously good for our brains as well as our hearts. It is worth noting that the crucial factor was not either breast-feeding or bottle feeding but whether the feeding was on demand as opposed to by schedule. The danger of studies like this of course is that feeding on demand becomes something that is done for an ulterior motive, an extrinsic goal like trying to have the most intelligent baby. This is likely to be counterproductive, as presumably it is responding to these babies as whole persons, with desires, wishes, needs and feelings, which is crucial on so many counts. Many researchers such as the psychologist Richard Ryan have described the huge difference between having what self-determination theory calls intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic motivation, that is doing something from a place of autonomy with actions that emanate from ones sense of self, as opposed to extrinsic motivations, which means doing something for external reasons, maybe to please another person, or to gain a reward or fit in. When we are intrinsically motivated we are more likely to be interested, curious and competent. In the current climate there seems to be increasing pressure to conform, whether in the workplace or in schools, or indeed in babyhood a la Gina Ford. Along with this often goes less interest in people’s states of minds, interests, motivations and feelings, and  just as with the parents of this study, when employees, students or babies conform to the expectations of those they are beholden to, life is easier maybe for those running the show, but less rewarding and less brain-stimulating for those feeling compelled to fit in.

Iacovou, M. & Sevilla, A., 2012. Infant Feeding: The Effects of Scheduled Vs. on-Demand Feeding on Mothers’ Wellbeing and Children’s Cognitive Development. The European Journal of Public Health. Available at: [Accessed April 3, 2012].

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