A new study reports that breastfeeding might give a boost to baby intelligence. Researchers have found several proteins within breastmilk connected to neurodevelopment, offering new support to the idea that breastfeeding can help babies’ brain development.
The debate around breastfeeding is long and will likely not end anytime soon. Scientific evidence has found that breast milk can protect against infections, and has been associated with a reduced risk of childhood obesity, leukemia, and even cardiovascular health in adulthood. But identifying what effects come directly from the milk is tricky, as other factors can also play an important role.
Regarding breastfeeding’s role in intelligence, results have been mixed and rather inconsistent. There is a myriad factors which can affect intelligence, and drawing a clear cause-effect relationship has proven extremely difficult. However, a new study comes with some convincing new evidence.
“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National.
Limperopoulos and colleagues at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, used a sophisticated, non-invasive imaging technique called ‘proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy’ to peer inside newborns’ brains, carrying out a comparison between breastfed babies and babies fed with formula milk. They looked for specific biochemicals in the frontal white matter and the cerebellum — two brain regions that are especially vulnerable in premature babies, which the study focused on.
Specifically, there were increased amounts of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) and creatine (a molecule which helps to recycle energy inside cells).
“These biochemicals are markers of brain development,” said Limperopoulos. “For example, higher levels of choline in the brain are associated with improved memory and cognition. We can’t make that direct link here – we don’t have information about memory and cognition in newborns – but our hope is that this is an early marker for improved later intelligence. We’d need to confirm that with our follow-up studies.”
The proteins are useful for all babies, and especially for at-risk babies, such as those born prematurely.
“We’re excited by these results because they’re helping us to understand not only how premature birth can have adverse effects on the developing brain, but also how our caregiving can help to protect the brains of these high-risk infants,” she continues.
However, it should also be noted that if the mother can’t breastfeed for any health reason, there is no need for guilt. Mothers are under huge pressure as it is, and adding more pressure regarding breastfeeding isn’t going to do anyone any favors.
The study “Improved cerebral and cerebellar metabolism in breast milk-fed VLBW infants” has been presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation.