Is the Brain Connected to the Breast?

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Nursing mothers have never had an easy time of it: Sectors of the American public seem to react with a mixture of embarrassment and mild disgust at the sight of a mother breast-feeding her baby. Now it looks as if lactating moms everywhere — and their children — will have the last laugh. According to a study in the current issue of the journal Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, researchers have found that breast milk contains two fatty acids that appear to significantly improve the rate of a baby's mental development. These acids are absent, as the study's authors point out, from the infant formula used as a substitute for breast milk.

Don't expect this news to elicit any cries of surprise from obstetricians and pediatricians; these findings are only another brick in a wall of pro-breast-feeding data, according to TIME medical contributor Dr. Ian Smith. "This just adds to the facts that keep piling up, making breast-feeding more and more appealing to mothers," he says. For many reasons, says Smith, including improved immune function and a lowered risk of obesity, the medical establishment has long advised new moms to breast-feed for at least three to six months, although the ideal is a year. Meanwhile, of course, infant formula companies are eager to pursue the addition of the newly discovered fatty acids in their products, though Food and Drug Administration officials say they need to see many years of research before approving such a step. And even if the supplements are approved, some experts warn, it will be difficult to precisely mimic the chemical and psychological effects of breast-feeding — on mothers as well as babies. Of course, if the breasts go back inside the blouses, what will there be left to do for all those busybodies who have made a career of tsk-tsking at nursing mothers everywhere?