Family Matters

Want a Brighter Baby? Feed on Demand, Not on a Schedule

Moms may be surlier, but babies do better academically when they're fed on demand rather than on a schedule.

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So much of the battle over infant feeding plays out over breast versus bottle that there’s precious little time left to focus on another area marked by its own share of controversy: do you feed baby on demand or on schedule?

It may depend on whose needs are being prioritized — baby’s or mom’s. New research in the European Journal of Public Health finds that infants fed whenever they seem hungry wind up as better students who score higher on tests, including ones that measure IQ. Meanwhile, mothers who feed their babies on a schedule indicate they feel better and more confident about themselves than moms who feed on demand.

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Researchers at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex and Oxford University assessed 10,419 children born in the early 1990s to compare the outcomes of feeding on demand or according to a schedule. They looked at parents’ educational levels, family income and maternal health, among other factors.

Regardless of whether they were breast- or bottle-fed, babies whose cries were rewarded with milk or formula boasted an IQ that was up to five points higher than scheduled babies by the time they were 8 years old.

Dr. Maria Iacovou of the ISER was the study’s lead researcher. She described the five-point difference as “statistically highly significant,” according to the Guardian.

“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.”

Intent didn’t seem to matter in this study: mothers who tried to adhere to a feeding schedule but failed had children who scored similarly to babies fed on demand. Perhaps their higher scores reflect greater security and trust on the part of a baby who knows his mother will take care of his needs.

MORE: Why Pediatricians Say Breast-Feeding is About Public Health, Not Just Lifestyle

The study called to mind the months after my first child was born in 2002. Gary Ezzo’s On Becoming Baby Wise, published several years earlier, was still causing a serious stir in parenting circles. Ezzo, an evangelical Christian who didn’t appear to be much of an expert on infant nutrition, advocated strict parental regulation of a baby’s eat, sleep and play schedule, with the goal of getting baby to sleep through the night early on. Some pediatricians worried that parents who followed the Baby Wise routine would endanger their infants through insufficient feeding; some moms swore by the routine. I never was able to figure out how anyone could not feed a crying baby. And so I fed on demand. Like the women in the study, I was tired. But I was a lot less anxious than I would have been had I followed a rigid feeding routine and been forced to listen to my son’s cries if it happened to be 30 minutes before nursing time.

Now, nine years later, it’s sure nice to know that my on-demand mentality may have enhanced my children’s IQ in a “statistically highly significant” manner.