The Link between Breastfeeding and Brain Development
Babies who were fed more breast milk within the first 28 days of life had had larger volumes of certain regions of the brain at term equivalent and had better IQs, academic achievement, working memory, and motor function; says a recent study published online in The Journal of Pediatrics, which followed 180 pre-term infants from birth to age seven.
More about the study
According to Mandy Brown Belfort, MD, a researcher and physician in the Department of Newborn Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and lead author, “”Our data support current recommendations for using mother’s milk to feed preterm babies during their neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) hospitalization. This is not only important for moms, but also for hospitals, employers, and friends and family members, so that they can provide the support that’s needed during this time when mothers are under stress and working so hard to produce milk for their babies.”
The researchers studied infants born before 30 weeks gestation that were enrolled in the Victorian Infant Brain Studies cohort from 2001-2003 and determined the number of days that infants received breast milk as more than 50 percent of their nutritional intake from birth to 28 days of life.
They also examined data related to regional brain volumes measured by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at each baby’s term equivalent age and at seven years old, and also looked at cognitive (IQ, reading, mathematics, attention, working memory, language, visual perception) and motor testing at age seven.
Findings of this study show that, across all babies, infants who received predominantly breast milk on more days during their NICU hospitalization had larger deep nuclear gray matter volume, an area important for processing and transmitting neural signals to other parts of the brain, at term equivalent age, and by age seven, performed better in IQ, mathematics, working memory, and motor function tests. Overall, ingesting more human milk correlated with better outcomes, including larger regional brain volumes at term equivalent and improved cognitive outcomes at age 7.
“Many mothers of preterm babies have difficulty providing breast milk for their babies, and we need to work hard to ensure that these mothers have the best possible support systems in place to maximize their ability to meet their own feeding goals. It’s also important to note that there are so many factors that influence a baby’s development, with breast milk being just one,” Belfort adds.
Other studies which prove that breastfeeding is indeed the best for babies’ brains exist. For example, a study using brain images from “quiet” MRI machines adds to the growing body of evidence that breastfeeding improves brain development in infants. According to this study, breastfeeding alone produced better brain development than a combination of breastfeeding and formula, which produced better development than formula alone.
The study made use of specialized, baby-friendly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brain growth in a sample of children under the age of 4. The research found that by age 2, babies who had been breastfed exclusively for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula exclusively or who were fed a combination of formula and breastmilk. The extra growth was most pronounced in parts of the brain associated with language, emotional function, and cognition, the research showed.
Also, the team led by an Australian researcher, Lisa Smithers, which used data obtained from the PROBIT study in Belarus to determine whether weight gain and head circumference growth in the first 4 weeks of life were associated with changes in IQ revealed that each month of breastfeeding was associated with an increase in intelligence. For children aged 7, any breastfeeding to 12 months lead to an increase of 0.35 verbal IQ points and 0.29 nonverbal IQ points. More importantly, exclusive breastfeeding to 6 months lead to an increase of 0.80 verbal IQ points and 0.58 nonverbal IQ points.
Furthermore, behavioral studies have previously associated breastfeeding with better cognitive outcomes in older adolescents and adults.