Breast Feeding and Bigger Brains

While it’s not fully clear how the breast milk affects the brain and cognitive growth, what is clear is that it does.

The human body is a marvelous, complex mechanism, one that is surprisingly self-sustaining and self-repairing. When given the proper nutrients, it can produce everything needed for growth and improvement.

One of the greatest examples of this is colostrum. Colostrum provides the amino acids a newborn’s body needs, but it also delivers immune cells to pass on the mother’s resistance to disease to a child.

Breast milk also plays a role in the development of infants. It delivers a hefty dose of nutrients to promote the growth of muscles, organs, tissues, and the internal functions. According to a study from early 2016, feeding babies—premature babies, in this case—increases brain growth significantly.

A group of researchers studying 77 pre-term infants found that babies who received breast milk as at least 50% of their daily diet had larger brains. Their cortical-surface area increased, and the amount of brain tissue produced by their due dates was significantly greater among babies who received breast milk than babies who didn’t.

Premature babies usually have underdeveloped brains. All of the babies studied were born at least 10 weeks early, though the average 14 weeks early (26 weeks of gestation). Their brains were smaller than full-term infants. MRI scans showed that babies who received more than 50% of their diet from breast milk had not only larger brains by their due date, but their cognitive development was also more advanced than the pre-term babies who didn’t consume as much breast milk.

The more breast milk the babies received, the larger the cortical surface area—ergo, the larger their brains. Given that the cortex is the part of the brain associated with cognition, it makes sense that breast milk could improve cognitive function among infants.

The results of this study prove that breast milk is vital for pre-term infants, and it can help to reduce the neurological problems and psychiatric disorders so common among premature babies. However, it also points to the importance of breastfeeding (or feeding breast milk) to all babies, even those born at normal term. While it’s not fully clear how the breast milk affects the brain and cognitive growth, what is clear is that it does. Breast milk is something that can benefit all infants, and it is an important part of any baby’s diet.