Human milk is a nourishment that is not only species-specific; it could also be defined individual-specific: a result of millenary selection process aimed to answer at best to nutritional, biological and psychological needs of the newborn (1). For this reason, the breast milk is considered a nourishment of choice during childhood, with significant positive short- and long-term effects on the health of mother and child.
It has been known for a long time that breastfeeding reduces incidence of infectious diseases in newborn, like diarrhea, otitis media, respiratory tract infections or even sepsis and bacterial meningitis. Furthermore, it reduces the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) during the first year of life and of asthma, obesity, diabetes mellitus of I and II type, hypercholesterolemia, and even lymphoma and leukemia during further life.
But what the effects on the brain
At the same time, the effects of breastfeeding on child’s cognitive development are less known. Several studies have been conducted in order to unveil the possible connection between the consumption of breast milk and performances during cognitive tests.
In 2001, a study directed by Horwood involving 280 children discovered that breastfed infants showed better oral skills and performances than others.
In 2003, Feldman observed that six months old breastfed infants had better neurobehavioral profiles, particularly in the domain of motor skills, and were more proactive during social interactions. These studies seemed to underline the importance of optimal nourishment right after birth – a critical period for brain growth and development.
As confirmation, a study that has been recently published on Neuroimage seems to evidence the link between breastfeeding during first weeks after the preterm birth and better white matter development with empowered cerebral connectivity* – that is, more efficient network of connections between groups of neurons that is used to perform a complex motor, sensitive or mnemonic task.
*the connections between two or more groups of neurons, necessary to perform a complex task that can be motor, sensory or memorization.
Sara De Crescenzo
1 Position Statement 2015 on Breastfeeding and use of human / breast milk by Italian Society of pediatris (SIP), Italian Sociaty of Neonatology (SIN),
Italian Society of Pediatric Primary Care (SICuPP), Italian Society of Gastroenterology Hepatology and Pediatric Nutrition (SIGENP) e
Italian Society of Perinatal Medicine (SIMP). -Horwood LJ, Darlow BA, Mogridge N. Breast milk feeding and cognitive ability at 7–8 years. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2001;84: F23–F27;
Feldman R, Eidelman AI. Direct and indirect effects of breast-milk on the neurobehavioral and cognitive development of premature infants. Dev Psychobiol. 2003;43:109–119;
Manuel Blesa , James P. Boardman. Early breast milk exposure modifies brain connectivity in preterm infants. NeuroImage 2019; 184: 431-439