A new large-scale study suggests that feeding babies when they want to be fed, rather that following a schedule, may enhance academic performance.
However, European researchers said additional research is necessary as the findings were observational, ruling out a direct cause and effect determination.
European researchers discovered demand-feeding was associated with higher IQ scores and school-based SAT scores for children between the ages of five and 14. The IQ scores of eight-year-old children who had been demand-fed as babies were between four and five points higher than the scores of schedule-fed children, the study found.
It was carried out by researchers at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, and at the University of Oxford.
Maria Iacovou, Ph.D., who led the research from ISER, said: “At this stage, we must be very cautious about claiming a causal link between feeding patterns and IQ. We cannot definitively say why these differences occur, although we do have a range of hypotheses.
“This is the first study to explore this area and more research is needed to understand the processes involved.”
Investigators accounted for background factors including parents’ educational level, family income, the child’s sex and age, maternal health and parenting styles.
The statistical evaluation suggests that demand-feeding is associated with higher IQ scores at age eight, and this difference is also evident in the results of SAT tests at ages five, seven, 11 and 14.
Researchers discovered scheduled feeding times did have benefits for the mothers who reported feelings of confidence and high levels of well-being.
“The difference between schedule and demand-fed children is found both in breastfed and in bottle-fed babies,“ said Iacovou.
“The difference in IQ levels of around four to five points, though statistically highly significant, would not make a child at the bottom of the class move to the top, but it would be noticeable.
“To give a sense of the kind of difference that four or five higher IQ points might make, in a class of 30 children, for example, a child who is right in the middle of the class, ranked at 15th, might be, with an improvement of four or five IQ points, ranked higher, at about 11th or 12th in the class.“
Researchers used information from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a child development study of more than 10,000 children born in the early 1990s in the Bristol area (a city in South West England).
Investigators looked at three types of mother and baby pairs: those where the baby was fed to a schedule at four weeks of age, those where the mother tried but did not manage to feed to a schedule, and those that fed on demand.
The children of mothers who had tried to feed to a schedule, but did not, were found to have similar higher levels of attainment in SATs tests and IQ scores as demand-fed babies.
Iacovou said: “This is significant because the mothers who tried but did not manage to feed to a schedule are similar to schedule-feeding mothers in that they tend to be younger, more likely to be single, more likely to be social tenants and likely to be less well-educated or to read to their child. These social characteristics are all understood to increase a child’s likelihood of performing less well at school.
“It seems that it is actually having been fed to a schedule, rather than having the type of mother who attempted to feed to a schedule (successfully or not) which makes the difference.
“This research is based on large-scale data and we are confident that there is a very low risk that the results arose by chance. Nonetheless, this is the first and only study of its kind, and further research is needed before we can say categorically that how you feed your baby has a long-term impact on his or her IQ and academic attainment, and before we can say definitively what the mechanisms are by which this relationship comes about.”
The study was published in the European Journal of Public Health.
Source: University of Oxford