Breast (Milk) Is Best

Evidence suggests that breastfeeding is superior to formula feeding based on a number of health outcomes. Infants that are breastfed have a lower risk of developing Western lifestyle diseases as they reach adulthood, and the risk of being overweight is also reduced. Some cognitive benefits have also been identified in breast fed children, and this is not surprising based on the current understanding of essential fats in brain development. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, C22:6 (n-3)), a metabolite of the essential fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA, C18:3 (n-3)), has been shown to be pivotal in foetal and infant brain development. Docosahexaenoic acid forms a structural part of the cell membranes of the brain and from here it is converted to a number of short lived regulatory autocrines including the docosanoids and eicosanoids. These compounds regulate all manner of brain cell function, including inflammatory, immune, and signal pathways. Docosahexaenoic acid is present in breast milk but is not present in formula milk.

Low intakes of DHA during early brain development may have negative consequences on proper brain development. Neurocognitive testing has confirmed that detectable differences are present between cognition in breast fed and formula fed infants. For example, in one study1, higher breastfeeding exposure was associated with better memory at 6 months. In addition, infants with higher breastfeeding exposure demonstrated better sequential memory scores at 24 months compared to formula fed infants. Toddlers also showed better receptive language and expressive language skills skill if exposed to breastfeeding compared to formula feeding. These effects are small and not all cognitive functions tested improved with breast feeding. However as cognition is difficult to test in young children, the fact that observable differences are observable in apparently healthy children suggests that breastfeeding confers significant health advantages compared to formula feeding, and this may relate to the presence of DHA.


1Cai, S., Pang, W. W., Low, Y. L., Sim, L. W., Sam, S. C., Bruntraeger, M. B., Wong, E. Q., Fok, D., Broekman, B. F. P., Singh, L., Richmond, J., Agarwal, P., Qiu, A., Saw, S. M., Yap, F., Godfrey, K. M., Gluckman, P. D., Chong, Y., Meaney, M. J., Kramer, M. S., and Rifkin-Graboi, A. 2015. Infant feeding effects on early neurocognitive development in Asian children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 101(2): 326-336

About Robert Barrington

Robert Barrington is a writer, nutritionist, lecturer and philosopher.
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