Breastfeeding boosts babies' brain growth, study finds

June 6, 2013, Brown University
MRI images, taken while children were asleep, showed that infants who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula or a combination of formula and breastmilk. Images show development of myelization by age, left to right. Credit: Advanced Baby Imaging Lab / Brown University

A study using brain images from "quiet" MRI machines adds to the growing body of evidence that breastfeeding improves brain development in infants. Breastfeeding alone produced better brain development than a combination of breastfeeding and formula, which produced better development than formula alone.

A new study by researchers from Brown University finds more evidence that breastfeeding is good for babies' brains.

The study made use of specialized, baby-friendly (MRI) to look at the 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.

This isn't the first study to suggest that breastfeeding aids babies' brain development. Behavioral studies have previously associated breastfeeding with better 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, said Sean Deoni, assistant professor of engineering at Brown and the study's lead author.

"We wanted to see how early these changes in brain development actually occur," Deoni said. "We show that they're there almost right off the bat."

Mean myelin content—the fatty material that insulates nerve fibers and speeds electrical signals—rises with breastfeeding. The changes to developing brains happen early, almost from the start. Credit: Baby Imaging Lab/Brown University

The findings are in press in the journal NeuroImage and available now online.

Deoni leads Brown's Advanced Baby Imaging Lab. He and his colleagues use quiet that image babies' brains as they sleep. The Deoni has developed looks at the of the brain's white matter, the tissue that contains long nerve fibers and helps different 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.

Deoni and his team 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. The researchers split the babies 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 study showed that 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 growth] is on the order of 20 to 30 percent, comparing the breastfed and the non-breastfed kids," said Deoni. "I think it's astounding that you could have that much difference so early."

Deoni and his team 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.

Deoni says the findings add to a substantial body of research that finds positive associations between breastfeeding and children's health.

"I think I would argue that combined with all the other evidence, it seems like breastfeeding is absolutely beneficial," he said.

Explore further: Fast-acting mothers' milk for healthier babies

Related Stories

Fast-acting mothers' milk for healthier babies

May 23, 2013
Human breastmilk responds quickly to protect the child when there is an infection in mothers or babies, according to new international research led by The University of Western Australia.

Sleep disruption for breastfed babies is temporary

October 17, 2011
While breastfed babies initially awaken more during the night for feedings, their sleep patterns -- falling asleep, staying asleep and total sleep time -- stabilize in later infancy and become comparable to non-breastfed ...

Can breastfeeding protect against ADHD?

May 14, 2013
Breastfeeding has a positive impact on the physical and mental development of infants. A new study suggests that breastfeeding may protect against the development of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) later in ...

Overeating learned in infancy, study suggests

May 22, 2013
In the long run, encouraging a baby to finish the last ounce in their bottle might be doing more harm than good.

Early formula use helps some mothers breastfeed longer

May 13, 2013
Recent public health efforts have focused extensively on reducing the amount of formula babies are given in the hospital after birth. But in the first randomized trial of its kind, researchers at UC San Francisco have found ...

Prolonged breastfeeding may be linked to fewer behavior problems

May 10, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Breastfeeding for four months or more is associated with fewer behavioral problems in children at age 5, an Oxford University study suggests.

Recommended for you

Helping amputees feel as though their prosthetic limb belongs to their own body

August 14, 2018
The famous idiom "seeing is believing" is not enough to help amputees with the use of their prosthetic limb. Many amputees opt out of prolonged use of their prosthetic limb because their perception of their missing limb simply ...

Double discovery reveals insights behind brain degeneration

August 13, 2018
Research discoveries revealing the genetic causes of neurological degeneration could be a key to slowing the progression of devastating diseases.

Scientists turn unexpected brain study results into research tool

August 13, 2018
Puzzled by their experimental results, a team of scientists from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital investigated why a research tool that was expected to suppress neuronal activity actually was stimulating ...

Could nose cells treat spinal cord injuries?

August 13, 2018
Researchers have designed a new way to grow nose cells in the lab heralding hope for sufferers of spinal cord injuries, including those who are wheelchair bound.

Study examines how people adapt to post stroke visual impairments

August 13, 2018
A new University of Liverpool study, published in Wiley Brain and Behaviour, examines the factors that influence how a person adapts to visual field loss following stroke.

Detailed atlas of the nervous system

August 10, 2018
Researchers at Karolinska Institutet have created a systematic and detailed map of the cell types of the mouse nervous system. The map, which can provide new clues about the origin of neurological diseases, is presented in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.