Breast Feeding Changes Infant Brains

June 17, 2013 in Medicine by RangelMD

The breast feeding vs formula debate war continues. Is breast feeding really better than formula and worth the nipple pain, swollen breasts, and pumping or is it a conspiracy of the mostly white, affluent, anti-feminist, breast feeding, traditionalists? Actually, the weight of the data is on the side of the breast feeders.

Several studies have found a positive correlation between breast feeding up to 6 months of age and increases in intelligence and cognitive development as late as a mean age of 27 (Mortensen et al, JAMA. 2002;287(18):2365). However, another study found that the intelligence of the mother was far more predictive of the intelligence of her offspring than breast feeding suggesting that there is a significant genetic component (Der et al, BMJ. 2006;333). Neuro imaging studies have found differences in the brain structures of teenagers who were breast fed as infants compared to their formula fed peers and these changes did correlate with higher cognitive scores but it remained unclear when these changes developed and what other variables might be involved from the breast feeding period all the way to adolescence. The issue has remained unsettled.

Now new data from a study involving the MRI scan evaluation of the brains of healthy infants has found that babies exclusively breast fed for at least 3 months showed increased development of white matter in several areas of the brain compared to babies who were exclusively formula fed or given a mixture of breast milk and formula. The study did not postulate a mechanism for the changes and did not compare the cognitive abilities of the infants in the three study arms but it’s clear that there is something going on that relates to being breast fed vs formula fed.

The actual differences in cognitive development and intelligence between breast fed and formula fed babies are small and there may be other factors (genetic and environmental) that have much larger influences on cognitive development than breast feeding but breast feeding is associated with definitive structural changes in the brain as early as a few months going all the way to adolescence. Since the biological default is breast feeding, the concern should be that formula either lacks one or more as yet unidentified factors important to early brain development and/or somehow impedes normal brain development.

Meanwhile, the war rages on . .

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