Is Breastfeeding Best For Brain Development?




shutterstock_97289648

Research has demonstrated that children who were exclusively breastfed perform better on tests of cognitive function and intelligence than those who were exclusively formula-fed, even after controlling for potential other explanations (such as socioeconomic status, gestational duration, birth weight, maternal education, and educational opportunities).

There also seems to be a link not just between IQ and whether or not a child was breastfed but also between IQ and the length of breastfeeding, with more breastfeeding correlating with higher IQ (up to a point). Additionally, adolescents who had been exclusively breastfed as infants have thicker cortex in the parietal lobes (involved in many cognitive functions including visuospatial tasks, mathematics, and attention) as well as more white matter (the “wiring” between areas of the brain).

Researchers in a new study from Brown University looked at the white matter of 133 children aged 10 months to 4 years in order to understand if there are early differences in brain development, depending on whether the children had been breastfed.

The study participants were placed in three groups:

  1. Those who had been exclusively breastfed for at least 3 months
  2. Those who were exclusively formula fed, or
  3. Those who received a mixture of breast milk and formula

Children were scanned in MRI machines while they slept, in order to reduce what are called motion artifacts (distortions of images caused by movement). Then the white matter of the children in the three groups was compared to each other. What the researchers found was striking.

Different areas of the brain mature and develop at different rates. White matter in the brain appears white because the neurons in this area of the brain are covered in sheaths of insulating fat (myelin) that work much like insulation around electrical wire, protecting them but also allowing them to send signals more quickly. As the human brain develops, areas of white matter are myelinated at different speeds and different times, continuing into at least a person’s early to mid 20s. Frontal areas of the brain and areas involved in complex cognitive tasks (planning, language, organizing) develop latest with simpler areas of the brain developing earlier.

With this new study, the researchers found that early exclusive breastfeeding was associated with increased development in areas of the white matter that develop and mature last. These regions and connections that had increased development in breastfed children are commonly associated with complex cognitive tasks, including executive functioning, social–emotional functioning, and language. In addition, breastfed infants were found to have improved performance in these cognitive domains. Other areas of the brain in infants exclusively breastfed also showed more development, including areas involved in language performance, visual reception, and motor control.

Based on the findings of this study and other large-scale, exclusively breastfeeding clearly is associated with better brain development early in life and at least into adolescence. Being exclusively breastfed is also associated with higher IQ scores and better performance on cognitive tasks.

Length of breastfeeding is also important, with evidence supporting the benefits for continuing to breastfeed for at least the first two years of a child’s life. What is not known is why breast milk is so much better than formula, or if there is some other as yet undiscovered factor that is the real benefit. Based on these findings, it can be important at the individual, family, community, and societal levels to reduce pressures on mothers to reduce the length of exclusively breastfeeding their children.

References

Deoni SC, Dean DC 3rd, Piryatinsky I, O’Muircheartaigh J, Waskiewicz N, Lehman K, Han M, & Dirks H (2013). Breastfeeding and early white matter development: A cross-sectional study. NeuroImage, 82C, 77-86 PMID: 23721722

Image via Zdenek Fiamoli / Shutterstock.

  • Jehefinner

    Which is the biological norm? Breastfeeding or artificial feeding? Which is the biological norm, smoking cigarettes, or not smoking cigarettes?

    Would you say “not smoking reduces your risk of developing oral and respiratory cancers?” Or would you say “smoking increases the risk if developing oral and respiratory cancers”?

    So why do we say breastfeeding reduces the risk of X, Y and Z? Breastfeeding is the biological norm. Breastfeeding allows for optimal growth, development and long term health. NOT breastfeeding *increases* the risk of mothers and babies developing a variety of health problems, from cancers to digestive disorders, reduced cognitive function and impaired immune responses.

    Please, can we start wording this the right way around. Breast is not best, it’s the biological norm. Artificial feeding is inferior and increases health risks. Breastfeeding does not give extra protection against anything, but artificial feeding makes babies and mothers vulnerable and more probe to illness, both long and short term.

    • Theo

      Thanks for your comment. It makes such a difference to say things the right way to influence behaviour. Best Regards

    • Jared Tanner

      Jehefinner, I agree but we researchers have a funny but precise way of wording things that’s largely tied to how statistical analyses are run (e.g., the idea of rejecting null hypotheses). Changing how things are worded can take research beyond what the statistics actually show. Yes, it can be very awkward but most of the time things are worded how they are because of statistical analyses.

      In the 60s and 70s there was a big push towards using formula (with up to 75% of babies formula-fed rather than breast-fed), which partially mirrored the rising rates of mothers in the non-home workforce. In the later 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s there’s thankfully been a large push back towards breastfeeding, although we still only have 12% of babies exclusively breastfed (i.e., no formula used) for the 1st 6 months of life. At 2 months of age, 60% of American babies receive at least some formula. People who make less money (lower socioeconomic status) tend to use more formula (likely in part because it’s provided for free or cheaply by government subsidies).

      The vast majority of mothers in the U.S. do not stick to the “biological norm.” If we start to say, “NOT breastfeeding *increases* the risk of mothers and babies developing a variety of health problems, from cancers to digestive disorders, reduced cognitive function and impaired immune responses” then are we implying that not breastfeeding is child abuse? Is NOT breastfeeding wanton neglect of children? Should mothers who don’t breastfeed be punished?

      My point is that it’s usually better to phrase things in a positive manner (“breastfeeding is associated with better brain development early in life and at least into adolescence as well as is associated with higher IQ scores and better performance on cognitive tasks”) when dealing with issues (breastfeeding) that have huge societal implications. For example, does increasing breastfeeding require removing more women from the workforce? Does it require mandating longer maternity leaves (e.g., 6 months or more)? Does it require ending subsidies for formula (and thus “attacking” – to use how it would inevitably be termed by politicians and lobbyists – the poor)? Does it require extra taxes on formula manufacturers? All those questions were rhetorical.

      Language is important and we have to be careful that what is said was actually demonstrated and supported by the research. Phrasing is very important but things cannot be phrased in such a way that is not supported by the research.

  • For a variety of reasons, “breast is best”! In regards to IQ, it is a multi-determined construct & is multi-dimensional. Across the world, about 80% of the prevaence of mental retardation is caused by psychosocial deprivation.

    In the first months & years of life, youngsters require significant external stimulation in order that the dendrites proliferate. So raising youngsters in stimulating enviroments is also critical.

    Rich

  • Jared

    Jehefinner, I agree but we researchers have a funny but precise way of wording things that’s largely tied to how statistical analyses are run (e.g., the idea of rejecting null hypotheses). Changing how things are worded can take research beyond what the statistics actually show. Yes, it can be very awkward but most of the time things are worded how they are because of statistical analyses.

    In the 60s and 70s there was a big push towards using formula (with up to 75% of babies formula-fed rather than breast-fed), which partially mirrored the rising rates of mothers in the non-home workforce. In the later 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s there’s thankfully been a large push back towards breastfeeding, although we still only have 12% of babies exclusively breastfed (i.e., no formula used) for the 1st 6 months of life. At 2 months of age, 60% of American babies receive at least some formula. People who make less money (lower socioeconomic status) tend to use more formula (likely in part because it’s provided for free or cheaply by government subsidies).

    The point is that the vast majority of mothers in the U.S. do not stick to the “biological norm.” If we start to say, “NOT breastfeeding *increases* the risk of mothers and babies developing a variety of health problems, from cancers to digestive disorders, reduced cognitive function and impaired immune responses” then are we implying that not breastfeeding is child abuse? Is NOT breastfeeding wanton neglect of children? Should mothers who don’t breastfeed be punished?

    My point is that it’s better to phrase things in a positive manner (“breastfeeding is associated with better brain development early in life and at least into adolescence as well as is associated with higher IQ scores and better performance on cognitive tasks”) when dealing with issues (breastfeeding) that have huge societal implications. For example, does increasing breastfeeding require removing more women from the workforce? Does it require mandating longer maternity leaves (e.g., 6 months or more)? Does it require ending subsidies for formula (and thus “attacking” – to use how it would inevitably be termed by politicians and lobbyists – the poor)? Does it require extra taxes on formula manufacturers?

    Language is important and we have to be careful that what is said was actually demonstrated and supported by the research.

  • You will find definitely several, ladies and men downside to through the help of technique is you may still have to waste premium rate, and the class could be significantly more constrained considering that the hands are likely to be linked in connection with the card dealer buys they’ve because of the companies. The tactic to specific some of merchandise flawlessness is always to eliminate attractions and be known as satisfied with related resources as well as materials associated with Chanel equipment instead of.

Jared Tanner, PhD

Jared Tanner has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in neuropsychology. His interests are mainly neuroimaging and neuroanatomy. He spends his research time looking at the structure of gray and white matter in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. With a focus on neuropsychology, he is also interested in how normal and abnormal brain structure relates to cognitive and behavioral functioning.
See All Posts By The Author

Do not miss out ever again. Subscribe to get our newsletter delivered to your inbox a few times a month.