Scans show early brain growth in breastfed babies

BROWN (US) — Babies who are breastfed show signs of early brain development, particularly in regions associated with language, emotional function, and cognition.

Researchers used specialized, baby-friendly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brain growth in a sample of children under the age of 4 years. By age 2, babies who had been breastfed exclusively for at least three months had enhanced development compared to children who were fed formula exclusively or who were fed a combination of formula and breastmilk.

This isn’t the first study to suggest that breastfeeding aids babies’ brain development. Behavioral studies have previously associated breastfeeding with better cognitive outcomes in older adolescents and adults.

But this is the first imaging study that looked for differences associated with breastfeeding in the brains of very young and healthy children, says Sean Deoni, assistant professor of engineering at Brown University.

“We wanted to see how early these changes in brain development actually occur. We show that they’re there almost right off the bat.”

Deoni leads Brown’s Advanced Baby Imaging Lab. For the study published in the journal NeuroImage, he and colleagues use quiet MRI machines that image babies’ brains as they sleep.

The MRI technique looks at the microstructure of the brain’s white matter, the tissue that contains long nerve fibers and helps different parts of the brain communicate with each other.

Specifically, the technique looks for amounts of myelin, the fatty material that insulates nerve fibers and speeds electrical signals as they zip around the brain.

Researchers looked at 133 babies ranging in ages from 10 months to four years. All of the babies had normal gestation times, and all came from families with similar socioeconomic statuses.

Babies were split into three groups: those whose mothers reported they exclusively breastfed for at least three months, those fed a combination of breastmilk and formula, and those fed formula alone. The researchers compared the older kids to the younger kids to establish growth trajectories in white matter for each group.

The exclusively breastfed group had the fastest growth in myelinated white matter of the three groups, with the increase in white matter volume becoming substantial by age 2. The group fed both breastmilk and formula had more growth than the exclusively formula-fed group, but less than the breastmilk-only group.

“We’re finding the difference (in white matter growth) is on the order of 20 to 30 percent, comparing the breastfed and the non-breastfed kids,” Deoni says. “I think it’s astounding that you could have that much difference so early.”

The researchers then backed up their imaging data with a set of basic cognitive tests on the older children. Those tests found increased language performance, visual reception, and motor control performance in the breastfed group.

The study also looked at the effects of the duration of breastfeeding. The researchers compared babies who were breastfed for more than a year with those breastfed less than a year, and found significantly enhanced brain growth in the babies who were breastfed longer—especially in areas of the brain dealing with motor function.

“I think I would argue that combined with all the other evidence, it seems like breastfeeding is absolutely beneficial,” Deoni says.

The National Institutes of Mental Health funded the study.

Source: Brown University

chat61 Comments


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  2. Erica

    Jen my son is EBF and weighs 13 pounds and doctor said he is perfect I don’t need to give him formula. Just because she was tiny didn’t mean she had to stop !

  3. Erica

    He is 6 months old*

  4. Caroline

    Whew! There are some Judgy McJudgersons on here!

  5. desiree

    this article sincerely touch my heart my daughter was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate and was able to successfully be breastfed for 3 months after that she rejected the milk but she is now a healthy six year old she get straight A,’s in kindergarten above and beyond past her classmates she’s able to retain a lot more memory and overall I believe strongly that breast milk is what made her a healthy strong 6 year old today so with the help of lactation consultants doctors nurses they were able to provide my little Sariah with the ability to grow and prosper more in life just by being breastfed. all good things come to those who have patience I’m a firm believer in Breastfed babies

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  7. Carol

    I believe there to be enough evidence that proves how much more beneficial breast milk is for babies in comparison to formula. I am a huge adversary for breastfeeding but I think studies such as this tend to add more guilt to those who can’t. There are, however, ways to support breastfeeding mothers and those who do not have an abundant supply. I believe the bigger controversy that should be addressed to support breastfeeding is the awareness that nursing in public should be a natural part of feeding and not frowned upon by so many.

  8. Lasana

    I would think that it would also be useful to control for the diets mothers who breastfeed. Wouldn’t the mother’s diet affect the quality of her breast milk? For example, mothers who eat foods high in fat, gluten, sugar vs. those who eat more healthily. It stands to reason that there would be a difference in the quality of breast milk, socioeconomic status notwithstanding.

  9. Dana

    Wow, does this article ever have it backwards.

    Studies show formula-fed babies have later brain development.

    Studies show the brain development of formula-fed babies is stunted compared to breast-fed babies.

    I know this makes me sound like… what’s that phrase… a “boob nazi?”… but you can only call this stuff “enhancement” or “early” if formula- and bottle-feeding came first and are the original biological situation. They didn’t and they aren’t.

  10. Dana

    and Lasana? A mother eating a diet high in fat would actually be a *good* thing, if the fat were mostly of animal origin. That was our evolutionary situation for probably a good million years or more, and longer if we’ve been eating insects all this time. High-fat *and* high-cholesterol.

    In any case, unless there’s a frank nutrient deficiency, a mom on a fast-food diet is still going to come out ahead in the milk department compared to a formula.

  11. Catherine

    my son was born 9 1/2 weeks early over 30 years ago when I had to go into NYC to find a hospital that could treat him – I breast fed him [pumped for the hospital] for him while he was in the incubator – he grew faster than anyone thought, had no residual effects and is extremely smart – when I stopped he caught his first cold

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