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How breastfeeding makes your baby smart

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Breastfeeding helps a baby develop a healthy gut—and that improves brain development, too.

A breastfed baby could even score higher marks in tests by the time it is a child, say researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Mothers who can’t breastfeed all the time can still help their baby if they occasionally breastfeed while formula feeding. “Your baby can still get significant benefits if you breastfeed as much as you can,” said Tanya Alderete, one of the researchers.

But parents need to check the ingredients in the infant formula; some contain contaminants that interfere with healthy neurodevelopment, the researchers say.

They assessed the benefits of breastfeeding over formula feeding by checking for metabolites—small molecules found in gut bacteria that are a by-product of metabolizing food—that appear in the baby’s poo.

They tested fecal samples form 112 infants when they were just one month old and again six months later and were able to assess the amount of breastmilk that they were consuming from the type of metabolites that were present.

In tests the children carried out two years later, those that had more metabolites from breastmilk in their stool samples fared better in cognitive tests than those who were mainly formula fed.

Cholesterol was one of the most significant metabolites for cognitive development, and the researchers discovered that the ones who were breastfed also had more cholesterol, which aids brain development.  The fatty acid is vital for forming healthy circuits between brain cells—and up to 90 percent of the brain’s volume grows in the first two years of life.

By comparison, infants who were formula-fed had higher levels of the cadaverine metabolite, a contaminant from fermentation.

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Npj Metabolic Health and Disease, 2023; 1: doi: 10.1038/s44324-023-00001-2
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