Still debating whether to breastfeed or go for infant formulas? Here are some extra points in favour of breastfeeding: a new study reveals that babies who were exclusively breastfed showed faster brain development in key parts of the brain, especially those that control language, cognition and emotional function.

Study details

In order to better understand how early these structural changes in brain development occur, the scientists examined 133 healthy babies aged between 10 months and 4 years. The children were divided in three groups: those who were exclusively breastfed during a minimum of 3 months, those who were fed on both breast milk and formula and those who were exclusively formula-fed.

MRI scans

Led by Sean Deoni, assistant professor of engineering at Brown University, US, the researchers used a ‘quiet’ baby-friendly MRI machine which scans the babies’ brain while they sleep. The MRI technique developed by Deoni analyses the micro-architecture of the brain’s white matter, the brain tissue that contains long nerve fibres. These nerve fibres are surrounded by a protective and insulating layer of fat called the myelin sheath. The myelin is responsible of speeding up electrical impulses, thereby optimising the communication between body cells and the brain.

Cognitive tests

To back up the MRI results, Deoni and his team also had the older children undergo a set of basic cognitive tests.

What the scientists found

“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,” stated Deoni. “I think it’s astounding that you could have that much difference so early.”

Moreover, compared to the other babies, those who were exclusively breastfed had the fastest growth in myelinated white matter — this development in white matter became more significant by age 2.

The cognitive tests showed that the children who were breastfed had better language skills, visual reception and motor control performance.

The scientists also investigated the relationship between white matter growth and the duration of breastfeeding. They found that compared to babies who were breastfed for less than a year, those who were breastfed longer experienced substantially magnified brain growth —especially in those parts of the brain controlling motor function. [Motor control/function refers to movement and coordination skills.]

The findings are published in the journal NeuroImage.

Breastfeeding and the working mum

Many women need to resume work within months of giving birth. If that’s your case, rest assured that you can still breastfeed once you return to work. Here’s how:

  • Take breaks to go feed your baby if you live nearby or if there’s a day-care near work.
  • Try a high-quality breast pump to express milk so that your baby’s caregiver can bottle-feed your little one with your breast milk.

What if you just can’t breastfeed?

Can’t breastfeed because of health issues, discomfort or any other reasons? There’s no need to stress: a lactation consultant, midwife, doctor or a paediatrician can help you out. Never hesitate to ask for support.


    Deoni et al (2013). Breastfeeding and early white matter development: A cross sectional study. NeuroImage. 82C:77-86.