Tag Archives: breast milk

Breastfeeding might help develop babies’ brain, new study suggests

A new study reports that breastfeeding might give a boost to baby intelligence. Researchers have found several proteins within breastmilk connected to neurodevelopment, offering new support to the idea that breastfeeding can help babies’ brain development.

The debate around breastfeeding is long and will likely not end anytime soon. Scientific evidence has found that breast milk can protect against infections, and has been associated with a reduced risk of childhood obesity, leukemia, and even cardiovascular health in adulthood. But identifying what effects come directly from the milk is tricky, as other factors can also play an important role.

Regarding breastfeeding’s role in intelligence, results have been mixed and rather inconsistent. There is a myriad factors which can affect intelligence, and drawing a clear cause-effect relationship has proven extremely difficult. However, a new study comes with some convincing new evidence.

“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National.

Limperopoulos and colleagues at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, used a sophisticated, non-invasive imaging technique called ‘proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy’ to peer inside newborns’ brains, carrying out a comparison between breastfed babies and babies fed with formula milk. They looked for specific biochemicals in the frontal white matter and the cerebellum — two brain regions that are especially vulnerable in premature babies, which the study focused on.

Specifically, there were increased amounts of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) and creatine (a molecule which helps to recycle energy inside cells).

“These biochemicals are markers of brain development,” said Limperopoulos. “For example, higher levels of choline in the brain are associated with improved memory and cognition. We can’t make that direct link here – we don’t have information about memory and cognition in newborns – but our hope is that this is an early marker for improved later intelligence. We’d need to confirm that with our follow-up studies.”

The proteins are useful for all babies, and especially for at-risk babies, such as those born prematurely.

“We’re excited by these results because they’re helping us to understand not only how premature birth can have adverse effects on the developing brain, but also how our caregiving can help to protect the brains of these high-risk infants,” she continues.

However, it should also be noted that if the mother can’t breastfeed for any health reason, there is no need for guilt. Mothers are under huge pressure as it is, and adding more pressure regarding breastfeeding isn’t going to do anyone any favors.

The study “Improved cerebral and cerebellar metabolism in breast milk-fed VLBW infants” has been presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation.

Breast milk given intranasally could benefit preemies with severe brain injuries

Breast milk offers excellent, balanced, and healthy nutrition for babies providing all the proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that young bodies need to stay healthy. Mothers create new antibodies in real time, which help strengthen young immune systems. But that’s not all. Recent studies have shown that breast milk is more beneficial than we think.

In 2010, researchers at Lund University and the University of Gothenburg, Sweden discovered a substance known as HAMLET (Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made LEthal to Tumour cells) found in breast milk that can kill cancer cells.

The HAMLET molecule. HAMLET (Human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells)


In 2014, researchers from the US and Australia found that feeding an exclusively human milk (EHM) diet to premature infants reduces the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a serious condition primarily affecting preemies.

A study in 2018 from the University of Helsinki showed that babies breastfed for at least six months have less antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their gut compared with infants breastfed for a shorter period of time.

Another study, published also in 2018, from the University of Edinburgh showed that babies born before their due date, show better brain development when fed breast milk rather than formula. Here’s another important discovery to add to the list.

Intranasal breast milk application.  


Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany have observed that breast milk administered intranasally (via the nose) could protect preemies who have experienced severe brain injuries. This is the first report on additional nasal breast milk application in very low birth weight preterm infants with severe brain injury observing a beneficial effect on neurodevelopment in preterm infants.

The research, published in The European Journal of Pediatrics, was based on the idea that breastmilk has stem cells (neurotrophins and mesenchymal stem cells) which can potentially repair brain injuries in preemies. Neurotrophins are molecules that can promote growth and survival of neural cells. Stem cells are pluripotent cells, meaning that they can develop into virtually any cell type that is needed by the body. The research is still in its early stages and the study is small (with only 31 extremely low birth weight preemies) but the concept is promising and deserves further studies.

If the international community is serious about meeting the health targets set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it must focus its efforts to encourage more mothers to feed their newborns breast milk and make it easier for mothers to actually breastfeed (it’s not easy!).

Breastmilk protects infants from antibiotic-resistant bacteria and improves preemies’ brain development

Via Pixabay/badarsk

A new study from the University of Helsinki showed that babies breastfed for at least six months have less antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their gut compared with infants breastfed for a shorter period of time. Moreover, the study showed that antibiotics used by mothers increased the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in infants.

Schematic by MeMed.

Schematic by MeMed.

Bacteria resistant to antibiotics are everywhere — including the human gut, regardless of whether a person has taken antibiotics or not. Antibiotic resistance (or antimicrobial resistance, a.k.a. AMR) is one of the main global threats to public health. Being colonized by opportunistic pathogens carrying antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) increases the risk of acquiring infections that are difficult to treat. Worldwide, an estimated 214,000 neonatal deaths each year are due to septic infections caused by antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Bacteria resistant to antibiotics are transmitted between individuals similar to how bacteria, viruses and other pathogens are: through direct contact or through food.

In this recently completed study, the researchers investigated the amount and quality of bacteria resistant to antibiotics in breast milk and the gut of mother-infant pairs, resulting in three important findings.

  1. Infants who were breastfed for at least six months had a smaller number of resistant bacteria in their gut than babies who were breastfed for a shorter period or not at all. This shows that breastfeeding seems to be able to protect infants from such bacteria.
  2. Antibiotic treatment of mothers during delivery increased the amount of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the gut of infants. The effect was still noted even six months post-delivery and post-treatment.
  3. Breast milk also contains bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and the mother is likely to pass these bacteria on to the child through milk. However, breastfeeding reduced the number of resistant bacteria in the infant gut — an indication of the benefits of breastfeeding for infants.

— 8 months —
The baby now weighs about 4 3/4 pounds. His layers of fat are filling him out, making him rounder, and his lungs are well developed.

Another study by investigators at the University of Edinburgh reported that babies born before their due date (premature infants, also known as preemies) show better brain development when fed breast milk rather than formula. Premature birth has been linked to an increased risk of problems with learning and thinking skills in later life, which are thought to be linked to alterations in brain development.


The investigators studied magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans from 47 babies who had been born before 33 weeks gestation with scans that took place when they reached term-equivalent age. The team also collected information about how the infants had been fed while in intensive care — either formula milk or breast milk from either the mother or a donor. They found that babies who exclusively received breast milk for at least three-quarters of the days they spent in the hospital showed improved brain connectivity compared with others. The effects were greatest in babies who were fed breast milk for a greater proportion of their time spent in intensive care. The study suggests that brain development in the weeks after preterm birth is improved in babies who receive greater amounts of breast milk.

Image credits: Public Domain Pictures.

Breast milk is the perfect nutrition for a baby, providing all the proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that a young body needs to stay healthy. Unfortunately, rates of breastfeeding and breastmilk consumption are well below desired levels. Only 40% of infants worldwide are breastfed exclusively until they are at least six months old, as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends. The reasons are complex, but in many countries, lack of education, together with aggressive marketing by makers of baby formula, has contributed to a decline in breastfeeding.

Case review: first transgender woman to breastfeed ever

A 30-year-old transgender woman successfully breastfed her baby for six weeks, until her milk production had to be supplemented with formula. How is that possible?

Via Pixabay/badarsk

First, let’s look at her case: she took hormonal treatment for six years before her baby was born. She hadn’t undergone any gender-affirming surgery, such as orchidectomy (the surgical removal of testicles) or vaginoplasty (the construction or reconstruction of the vagina). Basically, the testicles were still there and functioning.

To suppress the testosterone production, alongside the feminizing hormone regimen, she took spironolactone, a drug generally used for treating fluid build-up in heart conditions, but which also lowers the production of testosterone and promotes gynecomastia (breast growth in men or transgender women).

The case report states that she was in good health, but had a history of panic attacks, for which she was taking occasional clonazepam, and insomnia, for which she was taking zolpidem — drugs that aren’t recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding. The report doesn’t mention if she continued the treatment during breastfeeding.

The transgender woman wanted to breastfeed after her partner decided, during her pregnancy, that she was not interested in breastfeeding, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed during their first six months of life.

Easier said than done. Inducing lactation in non-pregnant cisgender women is a fairly common procedure, however, so the challenge was to the liking of New York transgender-medicine doctors Tamar Reisman and Zil Goldstein, the authors of the study published in the journal Transgender Health.

Got milk?

First, the researchers had to convince the patient’s body that she was pregnant, so they enhanced the dosage of estrogen and progesterone, the two feminine hormones implicated in pregnancy. Later, the doctors reduced those hormones to mimic childbirth. Additional to this treatment, they gave her a galactagogue — domperidone — to increase the secretion of prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production. Domperidone is generally used to treat nausea, but this drug is banned in the US because in some intravenous instances it produced cardiac arrhythmias, cardiac arrest, and sudden death. The woman procured domperidone from Canada.

To increase milk production, doctors also recommended using a breast pump that enhanced levels of oxytocin and prolactin. After one month of treatment, she started producing milk droplets, and after three months of treatment, 2 weeks before the baby’s due date, the patient was making 8 oz. of breast milk per day.

“The patient breastfed exclusively for 6 weeks. During that time the child’s pediatrician reported that the child’s growth, feeding, and bowel habits were developmentally appropriate. At 6 weeks, the patient began supplementing breastfeedings with 4–8 oz of Similac brand formula daily due to concerns about insufficient milk volume” write the authors.

“At the time of this article submission, the baby is approaching 6 months old. The patient continues to breastfeed as a supplement to formula feeding, and she continues to adhere to the medication regimen described earlier.”

The wonders of breastfeeding are irreplaceable. The study enumerating many advantages to breastfeeding. But I’m just left with one question: Knowing all these things about breastfeeding, why didn’t the birth-mother breastfeed the baby herself? It boggles the mind.

Another question arises: Did the induced milk have the same nutritional and immunologic properties as the milk that would have come from a pregnant woman?

Colostrum, known as the first milk, is different from the usual breast milk. Colostrum is produced only at the last stage of pregnancy and during the first days postpartum, and its qualities are different from breast milk. Human first milk is rich in immunologic components such as secretory IgA, leukocytes, lactoferrin, and developmental factors such as epidermal growth factor. It contains low concentrations of lactose, indicating its primary functions to be immunologic and trophic rather than nutritional.

Madeline Deutsch, director of clinical services at the UCSF Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, believes there has not been adequate research on the matter. Deutsch, also a transgender woman with a 6-month-old child, said she understands transgender mothers, but trying to induce lactation is “not something I would do”.

Doctor Deutsch is reluctant on this matter because there is no available information as to whether the medication used was transferred to the baby. She is also concerned about the nutritional values of the breast milk produced by transgender women.