Breastfeeding & Motor Development: Is There a Link?

Research led by Erin Bell of the School of Public Health found that breastfeeding had no notable impact on a child's motor development milestones, such as standing or walking. Photo by Donnie Ray Jones.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 22, 2018) – Breastfeeding has long been known to provide health benefits to babies, including improved immune strength, lowered risk for asthma and allergies and more. A new School of Public Health study, however, found that it has no notable impact on motor development.

Breast milk provides nutrition and energy to babies in addition to providing hormones, growth factors, antibodies and long-chain fatty acids that aid in growth and development. Though these benefits are undisputed among experts, questions have remained as to what impact, if any, breast milk has on a child’s muscular development and their subsequent ability to hit milestones such as standing or walking.

Erin Bell, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences, collaborated with UAlbany alumnus and pediatrician Scott Bello, as well as Kara Michels, Akhgar Ghassabian, Sunni Mumford, Rajeshwari Sundaram and Edwina Yeung, to explore the topic as part of the larger Upstate KIDS Study, which tracks the ongoing growth, motor and social development of more than 6,000 babies born to 5,000 mothers between 2008 and 2010 in the 57 counties of Upstate New York.

The team had a particular interest in determining whether or not breastfeeding provided any motor-development advantages to pre-term babies, and because twins are often born pre-term, they also focused on twin infants.

“One question many people have had is whether or not breastfeeding, in particular for premature babies, has any effect on the time it takes to develop gross motor skills,” said Bell. “Because the Upstate KIDS cohort is large and includes many twins, it was the ideal population to help us evaluate this question.”

Cohort and Method

From the Upstate KIDS cohort, the team looked at one random twin from twin sets and “singletons,” totaling 4,270 babies, and organized them into the following feeding categories:

  • Breastfed exclusively (control group)
  • Both breast and formula fed
  • Formula fed exclusively

When age-appropriate, babies who were fed both breast milk and solid-food were also examined and infants who were exclusively breast-fed served as the reference group. Mothers reported the dates of their children’s major developmental milestones using questionnaires that were sent at 4, 8, 12, 18 and 24 months after birth.

  • Feeding solid food in addition to breastfeeding was associated with slightly faster times to standing and walking in full-term infants compared to infants exclusively breast fed. However, this association was not statistically significant times and there were no clinically meaningful differences in the ages of gross motor milestone achievement across infant feeding patterns.
  • Breastfeeding combined with formula or with solids was associated with a slightly faster but not clinically meaningful time to standing compared to exclusive breastfeeding in late-term infants carried to 34-37 weeks gestation. There was a similar pattern in infants carried to full-term.

“Although breastfeeding does not notably speed along motor development, it’s important to note that it doesn’t slow it down either, and mothers who are able to breastfeed should still consider it because of the non-motor development benefits,” Bell said. “Additionally, more research is warranted on the subject of feeding patterns and motor-development milestones, particularly in pre-term infants” said Bell.

The full paper can be found here.

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