It's no secret that there are a number ofbenefits to breastfeeding babies, from boosting their immune system to cutting risks of infections and disease.
Now a new study bolsters the mounting evidence with a series of brain scans that illustrate faster brain development, particularly areas involving language, motor, and cognition, in infants that were exclusively breastfed.
"We wanted to see how early these changes in brain development actually occur," said Sean Deoni, assistant professor of engineering at Brown University. "We show that they're there almost right off the bat."
Researchers looked at 133 babies, between the ages of 10 months to four years, from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The babies were divided into three groups: exclusively breastfed for at least three months, fed breast milk and formula, and fed formula alone.
They performed baby-friendly MRI scans to capture the images of the brain at different ages and compared the older infants to the younger babies to follow white matter growth, which is the development of the tissue that helps different nerves from various parts of the brain communicate.
  
The team essentially found that exclusively breastfed infants had the fastest growth of the myelinated white matter, with the volume of matter reaching a significant amount by the age of two, while both breastfed and formula-fed babies also showed more growth than infants that consumed formula alone.
"We're finding the difference [in white matter growth] is on the order of 20 to 30 percent, comparing the breastfed and the non-breastfed kids," Deoni added. "I think it's astounding that you could have that much difference so early."
The researchers also tested duration of breastfeeding, specifically comparing babies fed for more than a year to infants fed for less than a year, which revealed in brain scans that the growth was significantly enhanced in areas involving motor function.
To back up the benefits claim even further, they tested the cognitive performance of the older infants using imaging data. The breastfed group again topped the list by showing better performances in language, visual reception, and motor control.
Aside from the health benefits, breastfeeding in general has been shown to reduce costs and help families avoid high medical bills for infection-related treatments.
"I think I would argue that combined with all the other evidence, it seems like breastfeeding is absolutely beneficial," Deoni said.
Source: Deoni SCL, Dean III DC, Piryantinsky I, et al. Breastfeeding and early white matter development: a cross-sectional study. NeuroImage. 2013.