The benefits of breastfeeding are often framed to highlight how it helps a child’s immune system, bonding with mom, building strong bones, and lowering the risk of SIDS. There are bonuses for the mother’s health too.
Science is now backing another reason to tout breastfeeding as a win for babies, as it’s been found that breast milk enhances brain development. The correlation between breastfeeding and both white matter and gray matter volume have been studied, showing that an increase in each are responsible for higher cognitive abilities and intelligence.
White matter is responsible for relaying messages between the different regions of gray matter, and it also plays a role in neurological disorders and function. It’s a network within a network! Without it, the brain wouldn’t be able to communicate with itself.
Gray matter is made up of neurons and a network of glia that support the neurons. It is directly connected to things like memory, speech, decision-making, and sensory perception.
The most recent study published in 2016 by The Journal of Pediatrics examined the impact of breast milk on gray matter in 180 children who were born prematurely for a period of seven years. From birth, these breastfed children were followed and evaluated.
Researchers measured gray matter volume and tested brain development in areas like IQ, memory, language, and motor skills. Babies were nursed during their first 28 days of life scored better in all areas and overall had more gray matter volume.
Additionally, a separate study conducted by Brown University on children ranging from 10 months to 4 years of age showed similar results. It compared the brains of children who were either exclusively breastfed for at least 3 months, on a combination of breast milk and formula, or who were not breastfed at all.
By age 2, those who were exclusively breastfed had growth rates in their white matter volume that was 20% to 30% higher than the other two groups. Tests for cognitive functions also revealed better results. But what researchers for that study also learned was that brain growth was faster for babies who were breastfed beyond one year.
What does this mean? We know that the nutrients in breast milk support healthy physical growth, but it is certain that the fats, vitamins, and other components in it boosts brain structure, growth, and power.
Both full-term and pre-term babies benefit from breast milk, with the risk of neurodevelopmental issues being lowered for premature infants. Doctors and lactation experts continue to encourage moms of preemies to nurse their babies when possible.
Although experts caution that more research needs to be done to verify how much of a difference exists in the brains of children who are breastfed compared to those who are not, this is great news!
At minimum, breastfeeding can protect babies from infections and other medical conditions and aid them in scoring a few points higher on their exams.
Were you aware of the brain benefits of breast milk? Did you breastfeed your baby and if so, for how long? What do you think of these studies?