• “Breast milk and baby formula... contains the right amount of fats that are important for a baby’s brain development." (iStockphoto/Getty Images)Source: iStockphoto/Getty Images
Your baby's milk-based diet, right up until age two, is vital for their brainpower and cognitive development.
Yasmin Noone

9 Nov 2018 - 5:36 PM  UPDATED 12 Nov 2018 - 12:22 PM

If you’re harnessing secret ambitions for your future offspring to become a child genius – or at least for your child to realise their full brainpower potential – then there’s one nutrient-loaded drink they’ll naturally guzzle in their first two years of life to advance their brain development: milk.

“Breast milk and baby formula – which is regulated to follow the composition of breast milk as closely as possible – contains the right amount of fats that are important for a baby’s brain development,” explains Melanie McGrice, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

McGrice, an Accredited Practising Dietitian, says although a baby’s brain is created in the womb, what they eat and how much they consume after birth will potentially affect the composition of their brain, current brain development and future learning potential. That’s why a baby’s initial milk diet – formula or breast milk – is vital for their brainpower.

“A baby’s brain is developed in pregnancy and then keeps growing throughout life. In fact, a child’s brain keeps growing until they are age 18. But the first 1,000 days from conception through to age two is when the baby’s brain develops the most rapidly.”

McGrice says research on whether breast milk or formula is better for baby’s brain development is limited and at times, conflicting.

..."the first 1,000 days from conception through to age two is when the baby’s brain develops the most rapidly.”

A study conducted in 2007 reviewing the evidence on the effects of breastfeeding and maternal health outcomes in developed countries found there was no relationship between breastfeeding and cognitive performance in infants in the long or short-term.

However, some other evidence suggests that breastfeeding has a huge impact upon cognitive performance.

For example, a World Health Organisation evaluation from 2007 shows that breast feeding may have long milk may have long-term effects on a child, helping them to attain a higher standard of performance in intelligence tests.

The review examined data from eight studies where the duration of breastfeeding was at least one month among breastfed subjects.

The results showed that performance in intelligence tests was higher among subjects who had been breastfed. The data from three studies showed that a higher school performance in late adolescence or young adulthood was also linked to breastfeeding.

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A 2011 study from Oxford University and the Institute for Social and Economic Research, Essex University also suggests that breastfeeding improves cognitive development and helps children to do well at school.

The study found that breastfeeding a newborn baby for as little as four weeks had a significant effect on brain development, lasting until the child reached at least 14 years old. Test results in reading, writing and mathematics for the children at ages five, seven, 11 and 14 revealed a statistically significant difference between children who had been breastfed for at least four weeks compared to those who had not.

American-based research from 2013, using images from MRI machines, also linked breastfeeding to an improvement in brain development in infants. According to the study’s results, breastfeeding alone produced better brain development outcomes compared to a combination of breastfeeding and formula (which was also better than just formula alone).

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If these studies on breast milk and cognitive performance are true, what’s in breast milk that is helping a baby’s brain to develop? McGrice says it all depends on the mother’s diet but omega-3 is one key nutrient that will help cognition. 

“A lot more research is needed in this area but some studies suggest a certain amount of omega 3 [from breast milk] while the brain is developing is very important.

“The gut microbiome might have an impact on a baby’s brain development as it’s thought the gut microbiome might be passed on to baby from the mother. So if you are breastfeeding, those good bacteria are passed over to baby.”

Adequate levels of carbohydrates, protein and micronutrients are essential for brain development.

“Breast milk is always best so I’d encourage any mother who can to breastfeed for as long as they can, even if that means feeding their baby a combination of breast milk and formula.

“But at the same time, if you can’t breastfeed, don’t feel guilty. We have such strict standards in Australia governing baby formula and the current research suggests that it shouldn't have a huge impact on your baby’s brain development.”

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