Infants who breastfeed are smarter, faster and stronger, according to a new study.
The research found babies brought up on formula milk performed worse in mathematics, memory, IQ, and motor function tests at the age of seven compared to their breast-fed peers.
They also had a smaller volume of grey matter in their brains, an area important for processing and transmitting neural signals to other parts of the brain.
New mothers are advised to breastfeed for the first six months to protect their babies against infections and allergies.
But more than 70 per cent of mothers in America stop early.
Breast is best! New research found babies brought up on formula milk performed worse in mathematics, memory, IQ, and motor function tests at the age of seven compared to their breast-fed peers (file image)
Publishing this study in the Journal of Pediatrics, the research team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital is urging women to consider nursing for longer.
They also implore the medical community to more efficiently investigate ways to help women who struggle to produce milk.
‘Our data support current recommendations for using mother’s milk to feed preterm babies during their neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) hospitalization,’ says lead author Dr Mandy Brown, a physician in the hospital’s newborn department.
‘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.’
Researchers studied infants born before 30 weeks gestation that were enrolled in the Victorian Infant Brain Studies cohort from 2001-2003.
They determined the number of days that infants received breast milk as more than 50 per cent of of their nutritional intake from birth to 28 days of life.
Additionally, researchers measured the children’s brain volumes using MRI scans – first at six months, then at seven years old.
Once they reached seven, the children underwent a series of tests – IQ, reading, mathematics, attention, working memory, language, visual perception and physical movement.
The findings show that infants who received predominantly breast milk on more days during their NICU hospitalization had larger deep nuclear gray matter volume at six months.
By age seven, these breast-fed children performed better in IQ, mathematics, working memory, and motor function tests.
By age seven, breast-fed children in the study performed better in IQ, math, 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 seven.
‘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,’ says Belfort.
‘It’s also important to note that there are so many factors that influence a baby’s development, with breast milk being just one.’
Researchers note some limitations on the study, including that it was observational.
Although they adjusted for factors such as differences in maternal education, some of the effects could possibly be explained by other factors that were not measured, such as greater maternal involvement in other aspects of infant care.
Belfort adds that future studies using other MRI techniques could provide more information about the specific ways in which human milk intake may influence the structure and function of the brain.
Future work is also needed to untangle the role of breastfeeding from other types of maternal care and nurturing on development of the preterm baby’s brain.