A baby's development is affected by a variety of factors, including breast milk. New data by researchers in California suggests that a particular carbohydrate present in breast milk, known as oligosaccharide 2'FL, enhances cognitive development.
The role of 2’FL in neurodevelopment has previously been explored in animal studies, but this work, published in PLOS One, is the first to look at its effects in humans. The team measured the composition of breast milk and the frequency of feeding at one and six months of age for 50 mothers at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA).
The team employed a technique called mediation analysis to establish the effects of oligosaccharide 2'FL in breast milk. Cognitive development was measured at 2 years of age using the Bayley-III scale, a standardized test of infant and toddler development. They found that 1-month-old infants who scored higher on the test were those whose mothers had higher 2’FL, but there was no significant impact at six months of age. This suggests that early exposure has more benefits.
"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," lead author Dr Paige Berger, a postdoctoral research associate at CHLA, said in a statement.
"We know that there are many different compounds in breast milk and the composition is dynamic – it changes over time and is highly variable between mothers," senior author Dr Michael Goran explained. "In addition to identifying the impact of oligosaccharide 2'FL, we also wanted to determine the timing of when it is most critical to a child's development."
The study has several limitations in terms of sample size and the sample was not randomized, which would make mediation analysis much stronger. Also, the women in the sample share similar socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicity. This limits the generalization of the results. Still, if further studies confirm the effect, 2’FL could possibly be added to children's nutrition to facilitate their neurodevelopment.
"For some women, breastfeeding is a challenge. For those that are not able to breastfeed or can only do so short-term, 2'FL could potentially be offered as an add-on to the nutrition their baby is receiving to better support cognitive development," said Dr Berger.