The Lancet recently published a review paper emphasizing the importance of nutrition in the first 1,000 days after birth. New scientific research is supporting this concept to a remarkable degree, with a Brigham Young University study finding that infant feeding practices predict obesity in adults. Additional studies released in the last few weeks indicate extensive health effects in formula-fed infants and increased brain development in breastfed infants.
You Are What You Ate
What you consume as an infant impacts your health for the rest of your life. According to the Lancet paper, malnutrition as a baby can have particularly lasting effects on an individual, and may be a contributing factor to the growing epidemic of metabolic diseases like diabetes.
While the consensus that breastfeeding leads to better health is not new, the mounting evidence shows that breastfeeding deserves a strong public health push. What little money is available for public health right now would be well spent on an issue that has such broad potential health benefits.
A study in Rhesus monkeys highlights the wide range of benefits of breast milk. Researchers at UC Davis found that compared to breastfed monkeys, those that were formula fed had altered gut flora as well as (possibly related) reduced function of their immune systems and metabolism.
Additionally, a Brown University brain development study employed several methods to measure brain development in infants. The researchers found that children who had been breastfed had much stronger development in some brain regions. While this is just a single study, it supports previous findings in adolescents.
The figures examining myelin water fraction, a measure of white matter growth, are particularly remarkable. By that measure, some brain regions experienced as much as 34% greater development in breastfed children as compared to formula-fed.
While many studies have shown long term health benefits of breastfeeding, there is still a need for more research.
Ethical considerations make true randomized studies difficult in this field. As a recent WHO review of long-term breastfeeding effects points out, the well-recognized short term benefits to infant disease and mortality make it unethical to assign a formula-only group at random. Because of this, long term effects can be obscured by the effects of parenting and environment (parents who choose to breastfeed may share other characteristics).
Additionally, the current recommendations would benefit from more information on the cause of long term benefits. Not all mothers have the option of breastfeeding, so there needs to be a better alternative.
The real story in this new research is that the development of baby formula has not progressed as well as one would hope. It is currently a poor alternative and while we may never (in the near future) be able to reproduce all of the benefits of breastfeeding, it is hard to believe that we can’t do better.