A new study boosts the evidence that breastfeeding is good for babies’ brains.
Researchers from Brown University used a specialized, baby-friendly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brain growth in a group of children under the age of 4.
They 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 breast milk.
The extra growth was most pronounced in the parts of the brain associated with language, emotional function, and cognition, according to the new study.
“We wanted to see how early these changes in brain development actually occur,” said Sean Deoni, Ph.D., assistant professor of engineering at Brown and the study’s lead author.
“We show that they’re there almost right off the bat.”
A research team led by Deoni, who heads Brown’s Advanced Baby Imaging Lab, used quiet MRI machines that image babies’ brains as they sleep.
The MRI technique developed by Deoni 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. The technique looks for amounts of myelin, the fatty material that insulates nerve fibers and speeds electrical signals around the brain.
For the study, Deoni and his team looked at 133 babies ranging in age from 10 months to 4 years. 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 breast milk and formula; and those fed formula alone.
The study showed that the group that was exclusively breastfed had the fastest growth in myelinated white matter, with the increase in white matter volume becoming substantial by age 2.
The group fed both breast milk and formula had more growth than the exclusively formula-fed group, but less than the breast milk-only group, the researchers noted.
“We’re finding the difference 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 colleagues then backed up their imaging data with a set of basic cognitive tests on the older children. The 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 noted the findings add to a substantial body of research that finds positive associations between breastfeeding and children’s brain health.
“I think I would argue that, combined with all the other evidence, it seems like breastfeeding is absolutely beneficial,” he said.
The study was published in the journal NeuroImage.
Source: Brown University