Breastfeeding and the Brain

The ingredients in breast milk support healthy brain development. The fatty substances in breast milk promote more rapid formation of myelin, the protective coating on the axons of neurons.

Certain non-nutrient ingredients present in breast milk— including enzymes and hormones — may influence the rapid development of neurons during infancy. Immune factors in breast milk protect infants from many illnesses (including respiratory, ear and urinary tract infections, diarrhea, constipation and other gastrointestinal conditions) during the early months. This proctection continues for a while even after stopping breastfeeding. This protection helps keep infants healthier until their own immune systems mature. Some fatty acids in breast milk, such as DHA (docasahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid), are also added to a few infant formulas. Other substances, such as immune factors, are found only in breast milk.

Breastfeeding also promotes closeness between the mother and her baby. A baby nursing at the breast can focus on her mother’s face, allowing eye contact and visual communication between the two. The mother can give the baby her full attention by talking and singing to her as she nurses.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for the first year and beyond. Infants receive many benefits from breastfeeding, even if a mother breastfeeds for only a few weeks or months. Infants who are not breast-fed need commercial infant formula for the first 12 months. Parents who use formulas can create the same benefits of physical closeness by holding and nurturing the baby during every feeding.