The Benefits of Breastfeeding

Yvonne Willemsen
About the Author

Yvonne Willemsen, is a PhD candidate at the Developmental Psychology Department of Radboud University in Nijmegen (the Netherlands). She is specialized in molecular nutrition and focuses on child health and the associations between nutrition and gut microbiota.


Globally, between 2013 and 2018, 43% of newborns were breastfed within one hour after birth, and 41% were exclusively breastfed up until six months of age (WHO & UNICEF, 2019). The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, and continued breastfeeding with appropriate complementary foods for up to 2 years and beyond. Why is that?

After birth, breast milk is often the first source of nutrition for an infant. Mother’s milk is fine-tuned to the needs of the developing infant. As such, breastfeeding plays an important role in early development and health. First, breastfeeding has been linked to a range of physical health outcomes, including protection against childhood infections, reduction in the risk of becoming overweight and developing diabetes in the future (Victora et al., 2016). Second, next to physical development, breastfeeding is also associated with improved psychological and behavioral development, including brain, cognitive, and socio-emotional development (Krol & Grossmann, 2018). For example, recent reviews show that longer breastfeeding duration is associated with a lower risk of developing ADHD (Zeng et al., 2018) and with better cognitive functions in childhood (Bar, Milanaik, & Adesman, 2016).

There are several possible mechanisms for how breast milk can influence behavior. Among others, breast milk contains fats, human milk oligosaccharides (sugars), and immune cells. Fats may play an important role in the growth and recovery of developing neurons in the brain, which might improve the cognitive functioning of children (Krol & Grossmann, 2018). Next, human milk oligosaccharides might exert their effects via the gut microbiota, which in turn can affect the brain via the gut-microbiota-brain axis (Musilova, Rada, Vlkova, & Bunesova, 2014). Furthermore, immune factors in breast milk can enter the brain via different routes and exert their effect on the hippocampus, a region involved in cognition (Spencer, Korosi, Layé, Shukitt-Hale, & Barrientos, 2017).

Overall, the abovementioned information shows the importance of breastfeeding in early life. Knowing this led me to research the predictive effect of breastfeeding on impulsive behavior in toddlers. Stay tuned for the next blog, where I will explain our research and findings!