Breast is best for a brainy baby - research

Breast feeding helps baby's brains develop faster. Photo / Thinkstock
Breast feeding helps baby's brains develop faster. Photo / Thinkstock

Breast milk boosts brain development in babies by up to 30 per cent, according to a new study.

Children exclusively fed breast milk for at least three months have up to 30 per cent extra growth in the key parts of the brain which control language, emotion, and understanding, say scientists.

The study of kids under four-years-old showed children who have breast milk as part of their diet have a clear advantage when it comes to brain development.

Research carried out at Brown University, in the US, found that by the time the babies had reached their second birthday a discernible difference could be seen in their brain structure.

Dr Sean Deoni, an engineering professor and lead author, said: "We're finding the difference [in white matter growth] is in the order of 20 to 30 per cent, comparing the breastfed and the non-breastfed kids."

Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scans were taken of the babies who had been fed a diet of breast milk in the earliest stages of their development, and of those who had been fed formula milk.

The scans showed that babies fed breast milk alone had the fastest growth in myelinated white matter - tissue packed full of long nerve fibres that link different parts of the brain that are used for learning.

The babies who were weaned on a diet of formula were found to have the least white matter.

Dr Deoni's team carried out the study to see how early the changes in brain development took place.

"We show that they're there almost right off the bat," he said.

Researchers looked at the brains of 133 babies who were born on time and came from similar families.

By comparing the myelin in older and younger children they were able to calculate how breast milk influenced the development of white matter.

The researchers backed up the results of the scans with a set of basic cognitive tests that showed language performance, visual reception and motor control were all better in the breastfed children.

The team found that the longer the babies were fed with breast milk the more developed their brains were, especially in the areas of the brain associated with movement and coordination.

While the Brown study published in the journal NeuroImage is not the first to link breastfeeding with improved development in the young, Dr Deoni claimed it is the first time MRI scans have been used to compare the brains in breastfed and non-breastfed children.

Dr Deoni said: "I think it's astounding that you could have that much difference so early. I think I would argue that combined with all the other evidence, it seems like breastfeeding is absolutely beneficial."

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