We all know there are a ton of benefits linked to breastfeeding—from boosting Baby's immune system to possibly even lowering Mom's Alzheimer's risk—so it's not a huge surprise that breast milk has been linked to significant early brain growth in premature infants. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that preemies that were fed at least 50 percent breast milk for the first month of life had greater brain development and growth by their due dates than preemies who ate significantly less breast milk.
Researchers studied 77 premature infants who were all born at least 10 weeks early, with the average being about 14 weeks early. They kept track of how much breast milk they were consuming until brain scans were done on the date that was the baby's expected due date, had they been delivered full-term. And the correlation was clear.
According to senior investigator Dr. Cynthia Rogers, "With MRI scans, we found that babies fed more breast milk had larger brain volumes. This is important because several other studies have shown a correlation between brain volume and cognitive development."
Premature birth is currently the leading cause of neurological disabilities in children, so this research could be a game-changer. “Changes in brain volume and cortical surface area may be related to intelligence, attention or emotional regulation later in life,” says Dr. Rogers. “So we would hypothesize that the larger volumes and cortical surface areas we observed may suggest better developmental outcomes later in life.”