Breastfeeding: Probably the Best Way to Enhance Your Baby's Gut and Brain Development

By Dr. Mercola

breastfeeding promotes baby's gut and brain developmentA vast amount of research has reported that breast-feeding plays an important role for the development of a newborn. Non-breast fed premature infants have higher risk of developing infantile diarrhea and necrotizing enterocolitis.

In a recent study, the content of brain cell growth factors and cytokines in human breast milk was analyzed.  Growth factors and cytokines were found in all breast milk samples at varying concentrations.

According to one study:

"It could be demonstrated that protein extracts of breast milk increased the amount of surviving enteric neurones as well as neurite outgrowth. Additionally it was shown, that the number of nestin and S100-expressing glial cells increased significantly after incubating in breast milk protein extracts. The data suggest that milk-born proteins support the development of the enteric nervous system."


Breastfeeding offers a list of life-long health benefits for both mom and baby, making it the best food you can give to your baby by far.  Many are aware that breast milk contains antibodies, or immune molecules, that are transferred to the baby, giving her immunities to illnesses that the mother is immune to. The converse is also true -- if your newborn is exposed to a germ, she will transfer it back to the mother while nursing. The mother's body will then make antibodies to that particular germ and transfer them back to the baby at the next feeding.

So it's not just a matter of vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats that makes breast milk far superior to formula. In fact, as a new study revealed, breast milk also contains substances that may significantly enhance your baby's gut and brain development.

How Breast Milk Supports Baby's Gut and Brain

Researchers recently analyzed human breast milk for brain cell growth factors (neurotrophic factors) and cytokines. Neurotrophic factors are proteins involved in the growth and survival of developing neurons -- they are essential during the early development of your brain and also help maintain healthy neuronal function throughout your life. "Trophic" is actually derived from a Greek word meaning "to nourish," so neurotrophic factors are substances that nourish your neurons, or nerve, cells. 

As for cytokines, they are substances secreted by immune system cells that play a role in cellular communication and behavior.

Not only were growth factors and cytokines found in all breast milk samples at varying concentrations, but researchers demonstrated that protein extracts of breast milk increased the amount of surviving enteric neurons as well as neurite outgrowth, which indicates it likely plays a beneficial role in enteric nervous system development.

Why it's Important to Nourish Your Baby's Enteric Nervous System

Your brain and gut are actually created out of the same type of tissue. During fetal development, one part turns into your central nervous system while the other develops into your enteric nervous system. These two systems are connected via the vagus nerve; the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem down to your abdomen.

This is what connects your two "brains" together.

Your gut is quite literally your second brain, and they work in tandem, each influencing the other. This is why your intestinal health can have such a profound influence on your mental health, and vice versa.

An important example of this is explained in my interview below with Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a Russian neurologist who demonstrates that an impairment in a woman's gut flora due to antibiotic and birth control exposure, along with a poor diet, is then transferred to the children she has. This impairment in gut flora then makes her children sitting ducks for autism and other brain injuries.

Total Video Length: 1:13:21

Dr. Campbell-McBride has developed an extensive recovery protocol that has helped many thousands of autistic children recover. It involves no drugs, but rather dietary changes and detoxification intended to heal and rebalance the child's gut flora.

Breastfeeding can help your child's gut flora to develop in a beneficial way right from the start, as it provides protective, nourishing factors for both the brain and the gut. Dr. Campbell-McBride is convinced that autistic children are in fact born with perfectly normal brains and perfectly normal sensory organs.

She explains:

"What happens in these children [is that] they do not develop normal gut flora from birth … Gut flora is a hugely important part of our human physiology. Recently research in Scandinavia has demonstrated that 90 percent of all cells and all genetic material in a human body is our own gut flora. We are just a shell… a habitat for this mass of microbes inside us. We ignore them at our own peril.

…As a result, their digestive system—instead of being a source of nourishment for these children—becomes a major source of toxicity. These pathogenic microbes inside their digestive tract damage the integrity of the gut wall. So all sort of toxins and microbes flood into the bloodstream of the child, and get into the brain of the child.

That usually happens in the second year of life in children who were breast fed because breastfeeding provides a protection against this abnormal gut flora. In children who were not breastfed, I see the symptoms of autism developing in the first year of life. So breastfeeding is crucial to protect these children."

Breast milk is loaded with nutrient growth factors that will support the growth of beneficial bacteria. It also has components that will inhibit the growth of bad bacteria and yeast. So one of the most important foundational elements of building a healthy GI system for your child is to first eat a healthy, probiotic-rich diet while you're pregnant, and then breastfeed after your child is born.

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The Many Benefits of Breastfeeding

Studies have shown that breastfed babies gain added protection against:

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) Eczema Respiratory- and other types of infections
Heart disease Obesity Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
Bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease Asthma and allergies Necrotizing enterocolitis among premature babies

Breastfeeding can also help promote cognitive development in your child. It also benefits the mother in several ways, including:

Enhancing maternal behavior through increased oxytocin release "Natural birth control," as it suppresses ovulation, making pregnancy less likely Diabetic mothers typically require less insulin
Easier weight loss Reducing your risk of endometrial-, ovarian- and breast cancers Reducing your risk of metabolic syndrome

As you can see, breastfeeding is actually about so much more than just feeding. It may even have a direct impact on a mother's brain, promoting 'maternal behavior' and increasing emotional bonding between the mother and child. This is not altogether surprising, since breastfeeding promotes the increased release of oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone" or "bonding hormone."

Do You Need Help Breastfeeding?

The majority of women are able to produce adequate supplies of milk and breastfeed successfully. Often, those who believe they cannot may be misinformed, and believe they don't have enough milk; this is a common misperception. In the vast majority of circumstances, most women have enough milk to breastfeed. The more your baby nurses, the more milk you will produce! This is why supplementing with formula can be detrimental to your milk supply.

Mom needs to drink plenty of water and seek optimal nutrition while nursing -- and the beginning weeks and months are critical in the process.

You should begin nursing as soon after birth as possible, as your baby's sucking instinct will be very strong at that time, giving you the best chance of success. In the beginning, the milk that is produced is called colostrum -- a thick, golden-yellow fluid that is very gentle for your baby's stomach and full of beneficial antibodies.

As your baby continues to nurse, your milk will gradually change in color and consistency from thick and yellow, to thinner with a bluish-white hue. Newborns need to nurse at least once every two hours, for about 15 minutes or so on each side, but most do not adhere to any kind of strict schedule and feedings can vary in length. It is this frequent nursing that stimulates your breasts to produce increasing amounts of milk to keep up with demand.

You may want to begin planning for successful breastfeeding before your baby is even born by taking a breastfeeding class while you're pregnant. Le Leche League is a terrific resource to contact for help whether you want to prepare beforehand or find you're having trouble breastfeeding once your baby is born. But even many hospitals offer breastfeeding classes and lactation consultants who can help you.

I do encourage you to do all you can to breastfeed your baby successfully, and exclusively, for at least the first six months, ideally longer. This is one of the best gifts you can give to your child and the health benefits will last a lifetime.