A boost to intelligence is believed to be one of the many benefits that breast-feeding offers babies. Those born quite early, though, often are not breast-fed while in intensive care.

Might such very premature babies also reap the brain-related benefits if they are given breast milk?

This study

The research involved 180 babies born before 30 weeks of gestation (27 weeks, on average). The daily volume of breast milk and formula the babies consumed for their first 28 days was recorded. They were given brain MRI scans shortly after birth and again when they were 7 years old, along with a battery of standardized cognitive tests at age 7. Children fared better on those tests when breast milk had accounted for more than 50 percent of their milk/formula consumption early in life.

The more breast milk they had consumed, the higher their scores on tests of IQ, mathematics, reading, memory and motor function. MRI results showed that greater consumption of breast milk also was linked to greater volume in regions of the brain associated with memory and movement.

Who may be affected

Children born very prematurely. A full-term birth occurs at 40 weeks of gestation, and births before 37 weeks are considered preterm. In full-term babies, breast-feeding has been shown to promote healthy growth, protect the child from allergies and a variety of illnesses, and enhance cognitive development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breast-fed exclusively for their first six months and then breast-fed while gradually being introduced to solid foods until they are 1 year old.

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The study included data on breast milk consumption only during the babies’ first 28 days; consumption after that point may have affected the results. Data did not include information on the parenting style of the babies’ fathers and mothers, which also may have affected the children’s test scores.

Find this study

Online in the Journal of Pediatrics (jpeds.com/inpress). Search for ‘breast milk feeding, brain development.”

Learn more

Information on breast-feeding is available at womenshealth.gov/breastfeeding. To learn about preterm babies, go to kidshealth.org (click on “for Parents” and type “primer on preemies” in the search bar.)

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.