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

Why a poor diet during pregnancy could impact your child's behavioural health
What you eat during pregnancy doesn't just influence the physical health of your child, but their future emotional health and mental wellbeing as well.

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).

Taking fish oil supplements when you're pregnant may help boost baby's growth
A new study suggests that taking fish oil supplements during late-stage pregnancy may be beneficial for your baby’s healthy growth right up until they turn six.

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.”

Michael Mosley investigates
What's actually in breast milk that makes it so good for babies?
Dr Michael Mosley delves into the nutritious components of breast milk by scientifically tearing it apart and taste-testing it in his new series, 'Michael Mosley’s Secrets of Your Food'.


 

Child Genius begins on Monday 12 November at 7.30pm at SBS and SBS On Demand. Watch a sneak-peek below:


 

I tried diets and treatments from all over the world to manage my PCOS and fall pregnant. Here's what worked
Melissa Christie, 31, was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome in 2012. The health advocate now looks back over years spent trying Chinese medicine, Ayurveda and low GI foods to improve her fertility and tells SBS what worked for her.
My son developed food allergies soon after his birth. This is how we make him strong
Soon after Noura gave birth to her son, he started to develop life-threatening food allergies. Now, 11 years on, Noura tells SBS what it was like to care for a baby with allergies and how her son bravely manages life being allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and sesame.
What to eat when you're pregnant (not just what to avoid)
A new book provides evidence-based dietary advice (and recipes) about what women should be eating before conception and during pregnancy to nourish their bodies and look after the health of their baby.
If you want to have sex more often and fall pregnant faster, eat more seafood
Seafood may feature more regularly on the menu, following the release of new study showing that couples who eat the most seafood have sex a lot more often than everyone else.
Plan to get healthy years before you start trying to get pregnant
More than the three months prior is recommended to ensure the long-term health of your child.