All parents want their children to grow up as healthy individuals with great intellectual ability that will enable them navigate life effectively.
The ‘work’ towards the realisation of this goal starts at an early age. And mothers play a significant role by ensuring that their young ones get the right ‘ingredients’ for a good start in life.
A novel study, published in the Plos One Journal shows that breastfeeding is a major contributor to optimal brain development, which is linked to great intellect.
Previous studies conducted in mice showed that breast milk boosts learning and memory among offspring.
The new study, conducted by scientists at Children's Hospital Los Angeles in collaboration with the University of California (San Diego), was the first to assess the impact of breast milk on the brains of humans.
Based on their findings, the researchers discovered that a type of carbohydrate found in breast milk (known as oligosaccharide 2'FL) enhances proper brain development, which shapes a child’s intelligence.
The oligosaccharide carbohydrates are the third most abundant component of breast milk, after lactose (milk sugar) and lipids (fats).
“Many studies have reported a positive effect of breastfeeding on cognitive development. We wanted to specifically identify what was causing this effect," said Dr Michael Goran, the senior author of the study and director of the diabetes and obesity programme at the Saban Research Institute of Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
During the research, scientists studied 50 mothers and their babies. They analysed breast milk composition of the women and how frequently they fed their children when they were one month and six months old.
They then proceeded to measure the children’s cognitive (brain) development at 24 months using a scale known as Bayley-III, a standardised test that measures infant and toddler development.
The results showed that the amount of oligosaccharide 2'FL carbohydrate in breast milk during the first month of feeding was related to significantly higher cognitive development scores in babies by 2 years of age.
However, the amount of the carbohydrate in milk at six months did not have impact on brain development.
The researchers note that these findings thus indicate that early exposure to breast milk may be more beneficial to children.
“ This enhanced cognitive development in the first 2 years of life raises the question of possible long-term impact on a child in school and beyond," said Paige Berger, the first author of the study and postdoctoral research associate at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
Based on the results of the study, the researchers concluded that the increased brain development and intelligence capability provided by breastfeeding was due primarily to mothers who were producing more oligosaccharide 2'FL carbohydrate for the baby to consume.
They noted that being able to identify factors critical to early neurodevelopment offers the possibility for supplementing women's breast milk in individuals who produce lower quantities of this important substance.
"For some women, breastfeeding is a challenge. For those that are not able to breastfeed or can only do so short-term, the oligosaccharide 2'FL carbohydrate could potentially be offered as an add-on to the nutrition their baby is receiving to better support cognitive development," said Dr Berger.
Aside from the high intelligence levels, research has shown that breast milk contains all the nutrients an infant needs in the first six months of life.
It is safe, clean and contains antibodies, which offers protection against diarrhoea and common childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, especially when the infant receives colostrum (or first milk) that is rich in immune boosters.
Breast milk also has long-term health impacts such as reducing the risk of being overweight and developing obesity in childhood and adolescence.
Breastfeeding has been linked to a lower incidence of respiratory conditions, gastrointestinal tract infections, sudden infant death syndrome, diabetes and leukaemia.
There also are benefits for mothers, such as decreased post-partum bleeding, earlier return to pre-pregnancy weight and decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
To reap maximum benefits, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that women should exclusively breastfeed their children for six months.
Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods, while continuing to breastfeed for up to two years or beyond.
Yet, statistics from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) show that about 40 percent of Kenyan children are not exclusively breastfed for the initial six months of their lives as per the WHO guidelines.
Supporting mothers to effectively breastfeed their children can help increase the practice hence enhancing the well-being of children.
This can be done by offering help to mothers in hospitals, to enable them initiate breastfeeding within the first hour after delivery.
The goal can be achieved through early and uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact between the mother and child, as well as educating women on how to enable their babies to effectively latch on the breast and suckle milk.
Organisational policies that offer friendly environments and facilities to support lactating women such as breastfeeding rooms, refrigerators for storing breast milk and flexible hours for breastfeeding mums are also helpful.
Reducing stress levels among mothers through family support, love and care also play a key role in promoting breastfeeding.