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Breast milk plays key role in brain development

21 March 2010
By Associate Prof Dr POH BEE KOON

MILK is the main source of nutrition for all babies, and the milk produced by mothers has is tailored specially to the newborn’s needs.

Breast milk contains just the right balance of nutrients, such as fats, proteins, lactose, vitamins, minerals, and water, for newborns. These provide the optimal nutritional, immunological, and emotional nurturing for an infant to grow and develop. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the World Health Organisation and UNICEF identify it as the “gold-standard” in infant nutrition.

Most importantly, breast milk also plays a key role in children’s brain development. It is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (DHA and AA), taurine, choline, zinc, and many other nutrients that support this process. While it cannot be guaranteed that breast milk will turn your newborn into the next Einstein, it can be guaranteed that it will help your infant’s brain achieve its maximum potential. But how sure are we that breast milk is the way to go?

The relationship between breastfeeding and children’s intelligence has definitely generated much research interest. The literature is extensive, and numerous studies have indeed proven the link between breastfeeding and positive neuro-developmental gains. The following studies and conclusions are a few of many that clearly support this association.

1. Breastmilk and subsequent intelligence quotient in children born preterm by Lucas, A et al, Lancet (1992).

Higher IQ: This study was the first to discover that in children who were born pre-term, those who had consumed breast milk in their early weeks of life had, on average, an 8.3-point advantage in IQ compared to other children. The advantages in IQ were maintained even after the researchers compared children with the same maternal education levels and social class.

2. Duration of breastfeeding and developmental milestones during the latter half of infancy by Vestergaard, M et al, Acta Pediatrica (1999).

Mastery of developmental milestones: Three developmental milestones related to general and fine motor skills and early language development were assessed in 1,656 healthy infants at six months of age. Results showed that the longer a child was breastfed, the quicker she mastered specific developmental milestones.

3. Breastfeeding and child cognitive development by Kramer, MS et al, Archives of General Psychiatry (2008).

Improved cognitive and academic performance: This randomised trial is the largest to date, with more than 15,000 healthy breastfeeding infants involved. Results showed prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding produced children with better cognitive development and academic achievement.

Brain food from the breast

A baby’s brain develops rapidly in the first few years of life, and it is important to support this process with a good balance of “brain-building” nutrients. As breast milk conveniently contains these, it is very important to provide your baby with breast milk right from the start and to continue at least until she is two years of age.

So, what are the “brain-building” nutrients in breast milk that make it so important?

·Fatty acids – The cells in the brain are largely made from a group of long-chained polyunsaturated fatty acids called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid). These fatty acids support the information processing and transmission that occurs in the brain.

However, DHA and AA are not readily found in the human body, and neither are the fatty acids required to synthesise them, namely, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA).

These fatty acids can only be obtained from a person’s diet, and breast milk contains one of the highest levels of these fatty acids (derived from a single source).

·Phospholipids – Effective transmission of information among neurons in the brain is dependent on the myelination of neurons, ie the coating of each with a layer of fat (myelin) that speeds up transmission. Cholesterol, which is found in high concentrations in breast milk, is also necessary for this process.

·Taurine – Taurine plays an important role in the development of the brain and eyes. Specifically, taurine plays a role in the synthesis of brain neurotransmitters that are important for nerve communication. However, the body is unable to synthesise this amino acid, so its presence in breast milk is very significant.

·Choline – The roles that choline plays in the development and functioning of the brain are many. It is needed for the synthesis of phospholipids, transmission of information between brain cells, and also improves memory. In fact, when cells are deprived of this nutrient, they are programmed to die in a process called apoptosis.

·Zinc – Zinc supports cell division and growth. Additionally, zinc has been credited as the nutrient that protects cells in the brain and central nervous system due to its antioxidant properties.

Breast milk also has various kinds of disease-fighting substances, including antibodies, which help protect your child’s body against harmful infections.

Breast milk also has antioxidants that protect babies against allergies. The healthier your child is, the more she will be able to develop into the intelligent young adult that she can be.

The body of research has conclusively shown that breastfeeding does indeed play a crucial role in the development of babies’ brains, not only due to its nutritional content, but also through the bonding that occurs during breastfeeding.

However, breastfeeding alone cannot sustain your child’s development past six months due to their rapid growth. Continue feeding your baby’s brain by providing her with a well-balanced diet beyond her breastfeeding days.

Remember, no single nutrient can support your child’s growth and brain development. A combination of a wide range of nutrients must work in concert to help your child fulfil her optimal potential.

This article is courtesy of the Positive Parenting Nutrition Programme by the Malaysian Paediatric Association in collaboration with the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, and supported by an educational grant from Abbott Nutrition International. For more information, please visit

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