Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

It’s Not Just About Milk: How Breastfeeding Relates to Parenting Practices


A recent article caught my eye and I thought I would spend some time here exploring it. At first, this study appeared to replicate many others in showing that breastfed babies grow up to perform better on cognitive assessments. This Journal of Pediatrics study went one step further, however, and considered what underlying factors might explain this association.

For years researchers have pondered what specifically it is about breastfeeding that explains its positive association with children’s cognition. Some have hypothesized that actual substances in the milk helps improve brain development. Others have wondered if the mother-child bond facilitated by breastfeeding helps infants’ development. While these factors may be at play, this particular study showed that breastfeeding was associated with two important parenting practices: (1) responding to children’s emotional cues, and (2) reading to children as early as 9 months of age.

Using a national sample of 7,500 mothers and their children from birth to age five, this study showed that mothers who breastfed were more likely to practice these crucial parenting skills. These parenting practices, in turn, were associated with greater reading readiness by age 4.

I find these types of studies fascinating because they accomplish what social science research is all about—uncovering the underlying explanations for the “attention-grabbing” headlines we often see in the media. While I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, it seems that mothers who do not breastfeed are often chastised in the media or public due, in part, to all the research showing the child development benefits. Until now, it was assumed that the benefits of breastfeeding were delivered through the milk itself, but this research shows that it is not just about the milk. In other words, if non-breastfeeding mothers can be responsive exercise these positive parenting strategies, many of the same benefits can presumably be passed along to their children as well. 


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