Breastfeeding - Good For Your Baby's Brain
by Michele C. Bru La Leche League Leader
An interesting fact that most of us probably don't know is that the human infant's brain is only about 25% of its adult weight at birth. Most other mammals are born with 60-90% of their adult brain size. Dr. James McKenna, a Professor at Notre Dame University, has done extensive studies on the mother-infant breastfeeding relationship. His scientific studies of mothers and infants sleeping together have shown how tightly bound together the physiological and social aspects of the mother-infant relationship really are. He goes on to say that "most other young mammals become independent of their parents within a year, whereas humans take 14 to 17 years to become fully developed physically, and usually longer than that to be fully independent." This means that 75% of the baby's brain will still be developing and growing after birth. Why is that you may ask? If the baby's brain were fully developed at birth, then baby's head would not fit through the birth canal. So here we have this newborn baby whose brain needs to grow 75% larger. Well, it would be obvious at this point to stress the need for good nutrition for your baby's brain. But the question one must ask is does artificial baby milk, which is based on cow's milk, contain the right ingredients for my developing baby's brain? I submit to you that it does not. Every year formula companies are trying to enhance artificial baby milk with a new ingredient that they find in Mother's milk. In this article, I would like to explore two essential fatty acids and how they affect the developing brain of your baby.
According to Dr. William Sears, "fats make up sixty percent of the brain and the nerves that run every system in the body." There are two types of fatty acids that help the brain to grow and function properly. Currently, we are hearing all about these types of fatty acids as adults. We know they are important for our brains too. The two types of fatty acids are linoleic (or omega-6) and alpha linolenic (omega-3). It seems that getting enough omega-6 fatty acids is easy. You can find these in safflower, sunflower, corn and sesame oils. The harder to find fatty acids are the omega-3's. Our American diet is severely lacking in this type of fat. You can find omega-3's in flax seed, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and coldwater fish such as salmon and tuna. Some dark green leafy vegetables also contain the omega-3's.
Dr. Linda Palmer, in her book Baby Matters, references data from the USDA Nutrient Database. She compares about 12 different fatty acids that are found in breast milk to three artificial baby formulas. All three of these formula companies fell short of providing the quantities of fatty acids that were found in breast milk. With regard to omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, the artificial formulas had zero amounts. So what have formula companies tried to do? They have, of course, tried to fortify formulas with fatty acids similar to breast milk. However, based on Dr. Palmer's research "so far, all efforts to fortify formulas with various combinations of fatty acids have failed to produce the level of eye and brain development that breastfeeding and only breastfeeding can provide." As I have also learned at La Leche League, breast milk changes from day to day, month to month and from year to year. It seems to me that our bodies can produce the exact amount of fatty acids in the right proportions necessary to feed our baby's brain. And this is in concert with all the other components in breast milk.
A wonderful book that I discovered that is easy to read is The Omega Solution by Jonathan Goodman, N.D. He explores how the essential fatty acids (EFAs) support our brain and nervous system. EFAs are not just for babies but also for all of us. He says, "Faced with the disturbing increase in attention-deficit disorder among children, doctors have been looking at ways in which diet may help improve healthy brain function. Research has shown that children with attention-deficit disorder often have lower blood levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) than do children without this condition." There are certain fish that have the highest amount of fatty acids, which include DHA. They are Atlantic Cod, Coho Salmon, Mackerel, Pacific Halibut, Rainbow Trout, Shrimp, Tuna, Cod Liver oil, and Salmon oil, with Atlantic Cod coming in first with the highest amount. Of course, Mother's milk produces the right amount of essential fatty acids needed for her baby. But it probably would also be safe to say that Mother needs to get the necessary amounts of fatty acids as well through diet or supplements.
Now how do EFAs feed our brain? The developing unborn and born baby uses EFAs as "building materials and sources of fuel" for cell function. "EFA's also play a key role in the transmission of signals that are constantly passing between nerve cells, or neurons. Without EFAs, signals from the brain would either be diminished or misguided." Also, studies have shown that without the proper amount of EFAs, children and adults may have various memory or behavior problems. I wonder if many of our ADHD and ADD children have these brain misfires because they lack EFAs. It is definitely a research area that we should watch for and where more needs to be done.
An important aspect of EFA's for the unborn baby is that a large amount of Mother's EFAs stored in the placenta is received by the baby during the last trimester. If the baby is born prematurely, then the baby's brain will not receive the proper amount of EFAs necessary for brain development. As we know, breast milk is so vitally important for our premature babies, and this appears to be one of the important reasons why. When my cousin had triplets, she was not that interested in breastfeeding, but she was very heavily encouraged to pump her milk by the neonatal doctors and nurses so her premature triplets could receive that wonderful, nutritional milk that only Mother can make. Without this breast milk, I'm sure her three young boys might have long-term negative affects. So how long does our brain need these EFAs? Well, if it takes another year or two for a baby's brain to develop after birth, suffice it to say that a baby needs these EFAs in his diet for several years after birth. If a Mother nurses her baby for only a few months, then where will this baby get the essential fatty acids for brain development after the baby is weaned from breast milk? Well, in the past, artificial baby formula did not contain essential fatty acids at all! Now formula companies are trying to add it in. But according to Dr. Goodman, "Even though some formula makers add EFAs to their products, studies suggest that infants given the formulas may have lower levels of DHA than their breastfed counterparts."
One study that can be found on the La Leche League website did a review of 20 studies. One study found that "The longer a baby is breast-fed, the greater the benefits to his or her IQ. These benefits were seen from age 6 months through 15 years." Anderson, J.W., et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Oct. 1999, 70. Other studies showed that breastfed babies have IQ's that are 3 to 5 points higher than their formula-fed counterparts.
As parents we want the best for our children. As a new parent it takes time to realize that sacrifice goes along with raising our children. Our life is changed forever with our new baby and will never be the same. We have a vital opportunity as mothers to really make an impact on our children's physical and emotional health. In particular, our children's brains depend on our life-giving breast milk. If we choose not to breastfeed our babies, then we are cheating them out of essential nutrients that can develop their brains and enable them to be the best persons they can be. These essential nutrients are found in nature and have been given to us to be part of our own diets. Somehow our modern snack-eating society has lost these wonderful nutrients. They really can't be found in potato chips or French fries. We ourselves must be eating fish, vegetables, fruits, and various nuts. La Leche League contains many articles and books that help families to eat healthy and nutritious whole foods. Breastfeeding a baby for a few years is such a small time commitment compared to one's entire life. Yes, sometimes it seems like forever, but the sacrifice is worth it. You, as a breastfeeding Mother, should know that you are giving your child food for his or her brain, among many other wonderful advantages. Let's not give up on our children, and let's give them an excellent start in brain development by feeding them the perfect food for as long as we are able. And Mom, be sure you are getting the perfect food for your brain too!
Whole Foods for the Whole Family, La Leche League Cookbook
Breastfeeding Your Premature Baby, Gwen Gotsch, La Leche League.
Baby Matters, What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Caring for Your Baby, Dr. Linda Folden Palmer, 2001.
The Omega Solution, Jonathan Goodman, 2001.
- Do a search on "fatty acids" for articles.
- Plenty of information on feeding our brains and nutrition.
- Information on co-sleeping, breast feeding and benefits of both.
- "Baby Matters" website with lots of nutritional information for babies and children.
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