The Link between Breastfeeding and Brain Development
We can’t promise that breastfeeding will make your child a Nobel Prize winner, but research shows a very positive relationship between breastfeeding and brain development.
- Children who were breastfed have I.Q. scores averaging seven to ten points higher than formula-fed infants. It’s important to remember that these numbers represent averages for hundreds of children, not the effect of breastfeeding on a specific individual. So, if you want to raise the intelligence level of an entire generation of children, breastfeeding would be a simple and cost-effective way to do it.
- Studies have shown that children who are breastfed get higher grades in school, even after other influences on school performance are taken into account.
- The positive effects of breastfeeding and brain development are greater the longer the baby is breastfed.
Although intellectual differences between breastfed and formula-fed children used to be attributed to the increased holding and interaction associated with breastfeeding and to the fact that mothers who breastfed were better educated and/or more child-centered, new evidence shows that there are nutrients the tie between breastfeeding and brain development is from nutrients in breastmilk that enhance brain growth.
One key ingredient in breastmilk is a brain-boosting fat called DHA (docasahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid. DHA is a vital nutrient for growth, development and maintenance of brain tissue. Autopsy analysis of brain tissue from breastfed and formula-fed infants shows that the brains of breastfed babies have a higher concentration of DHA, and DHA levels are highest in babies who are breastfed the longest. Infant formulas made in the United States do not contain DHA.
Add More DHA to your Diet
To insure that babies get enough nutrients for their growing brains, it’s important that breastfeeding mothers get enough DHA in their diets. Rich sources of DHA are fish (particularly salmon and tuna). Increasing DHA consumption will benefit mom’s health too. Remember the nutritional rule of F’s: four ounces of fish a day keeps central nervous system degeneration at bay.
Cholesterol is another fat needed for optimal brain development. Breastmilk contains a lot of cholesterol, while infant formulas currently contain none. “Low in cholesterol” may be good news for adult diets, but not for babies–cholesterol provides basic components for manufacturing nerve tissue in the growing brain.
DHA, cholesterol and other breastmilk fats provide the right substances for manufacturing myelin, the fatty sheath that surrounds nerve fibers. Myelin acts as insulation, making it possible for nerves to carry information from one part of the brain or body to another. So important are these brain-building fats, that if mother’s diet doesn’t provide enough of them for her milk, the breasts can make them on the spot.
Lactose is the main sugar in breastmilk. The body breaks it down into two simpler sugars – glucose and galactose. Galactose is a valuable nutrient for brain tissue development. Anthropologists have demonstrated that the more intelligent species of mammals have greater amounts of lactose in their milk, and human milk contains one of the highest concentrations of lactose of any mammal milk. Cow milk and some cow milk formulas contain lactose, but not as much as human milk. Soy-based and other lactose-free formulas contain no lactose at all, only table sugar and corn syrup.
During the first two years of your baby’s life, the brain grows rapidly, and baby’s everyday experiences shapes brain growth. Brains cells, called neurons, multiply and connect with each other until the brain circuitry resembles miles of tangled electrical wires. Every time a baby interacts with her environment, her brain makes a new connection. Because breastmilk is digested faster, breastfed babies feed more often and therefore probably interact with their caregivers more often. Breastfeeding itself, with its skin-to-skin contact, the variations in milk flow, and the closeness between mother and baby, is usually a more interesting, more interactive experience than bottle-feeding. This is nature’s way of insuring that babies get the stimulation they need for optimal benefits from breastfeeding and brain development.