Study: Breastfeeding Benefits Show Up In MRI Scans

Breastfeeding baby

Breast milk is widely acknowledged as the most complete form of nutrition for infants, with a range of benefits for infants’ health, growth, immunity and development.
Healthy People 2010, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia

And while I don’t think anyone would disagree with that statement, I believe that the complete benefits of being breastfed are still being learned.

To fully understand how mom’s milk helps a baby develop, researchers from Brown University made use of specialized, baby-friendly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brain growth in a sample of children under the age of 4.

But what they found is pretty incredible and hopefully will motivate new moms to nurse – even if they can only do it for a couple months.

The research found that by age 2, babies who had been breastfed exclusively for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula exclusively or who were fed a combination of formula and breastmilk. The extra growth was most pronounced in parts of the brain associated with language, emotional function, and cognition, the research showed.

For the cross-section study researchers ‘used quiet magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to compare measures of white matter microstructure (mcDESPOT measures of myelin water fraction) in 133 healthy children from 10 months through 4 years of age, who were either exclusively breastfed a minimum of 3 months; exclusively formula-fed; or received a mixture of breast milk and formula.’ They also examined the relationship between breastfeeding duration and white matter microstructure.

MRI images, taken while children were asleep, showed that infants who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months. Image VIA Brown University

MRI images, taken while children were asleep, showed that infants who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months. Image VIA Brown University


Breastfed children exhibited increased white matter development in later maturing frontal and association brain regions. Positive relationships between white matter microstructure and breastfeeding duration are also exhibited in several brain regions, that are anatomically consistent with observed improvements in cognitive and behavioral performance measures.

Almost immediately the mean myelin content, the fatty material that insulates nerve fibers and speeds electrical signals, rises with breastfeeding.

“We’re finding the difference [in white matter growth] is on the order of 20 to 30 percent, comparing the breastfed and the non-breastfed kids,” said Deoni. “I think it’s astounding that you could have that much difference so early.”

The team backed up their MRI finding with a set of basic cognitive tests on the older children. Those tests found increased language performance, visual reception, and motor control performance in the breastfed group.

When babies who were breastfed for more than a year were compared with those breastfed less than a year the team found ‘significant enhanced brain growth’ in the babies who were nursed longer – more notably in areas of the brain dealing with motor function.

“I think I would argue that combined with all the other evidence, it seems like breastfeeding is absolutely beneficial,” he said.

In the past studies have found that breastfeeding reduces childhood obesity and diabetes risk. Plus, moms who breastfeed are at significantly lower risk of developing breast cancer, hypertension and suffering a heart attack than women who do not, a study conducted at Harvard Medical School revealed.



About the author

Lisa Arneill

Mom of 2 boys and founder of and World Traveled Family. When I'm not running around after my boys, I'm looking for our next vacation spot!

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