Breastfed Infants' Brains Develop Better, Faster

Breast-feeding helps babies' brains develop better, studies show. Henry Romero/REUTERS

Evidence continues to mount that breast-feeding is vital for the optimal development of babies—and their brains.

A study published in July in the journal Pediatrics found that children who received more breast milk during their first 28 days of life had more gray matter at various locations within the brain at the age of 7, compared to those who received less. Gray matter consists of neurons and it is where cognition and processing within the brain take place. Seven-year-olds who were breast-fed more in their first month of life also scored significantly higher on tests of IQ, working memory, math and motor skills.

The paper adds to a growing body of evidence that babies who are breast-fed generally score higher on cognitive tests. A study published in 2010 in Pediatric Research found that infants with a higher proportion of breast milk in their diets had higher IQs and boys given more milk had larger brains than those who didn't. These studies suggest that components within breast milk actually help the brain develop better and grow bigger.

Another paper published in NeuroImage in 2013 found that already by the age of 2, breast-fed infants had 20 to 30 percent more white matter—which is involved in communication between different brain regions and the body—compared to those given formula.

The Pediatrics study followed 180 preterm infants from birth past the age of 7, conducting MRI brain scans and tests at various ages. The babies were treated in neonatal intensive care units and given as much breast milk as possible, but not equal amounts.

"This is not only important for moms, but also for hospitals, employers, and friends and family members, so that they can provide the support that's needed during this time when mothers are under stress and working so hard to produce milk for their babies," said study lead author Mandy Brown Belfort, a physician and researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, in a statement.