Studies have shown that breastfed babies score higher on mental development tests. One thought behind the higher thinking and language skills is that breast milk contains more fatty acids. So infant formulas enriched with DHA and ARA omega fatty acids from algae have found their way into the jam-packed baby formula aisle. But do these supplements actually give an infant a brainpower edge? Not according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.
The study says that baby formula supplemented with fatty acids doesn’t boost infants’ brainpower any more than formula without extra fatty acids. The results don't necessarily mean fatty acids in formula have no benefit. But they suggest the fats don't give children the thinking and language advantage that's been tied to breastfeeding.
Researchers explain in their study that infants raised on breast milk tend to score higher on tests of mental development than those who are fed formula.
One reason for the gap could be the higher levels of fatty acids found in breast milk, given that the fats are essential for babies' brain development.
"The differences in cognitive development between breastfed and formula-fed infants were a substantial motivating factor in adding (fatty acids) to infant formulas," according to the report.
Most baby formula is cow milk based and fortified with fatty acids and other nutrients.
Studies on the issue have had mixed results, so the researchers, led by Dr. Ahmad Qawasmi at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, sought to get a better verdict by combining them into one analysis.
They used data from 12 trials that compared babies fed formula with fatty acid supplementation to babies fed formula without the extra fats. In total, about 1,800 infants took part in the studies, which were conducted between 1998 and 2005.
The children started drinking formula by one month of age, and around the time they turned one, they underwent exams to measure their motor skills, language abilities and mental development.
Just two of the studies included in the analysis found that babies fed supplemented formula performed better on the tests.
A third report showed a fatty acid-linked boost on some developmental measures but not others, and the remaining nine studies found no cognitive benefits in the babies getting added fatty acids.
Taken together, the studies show the extra fats provide no advantage as far as braininess goes, the researchers said. But it's still possible that adding fatty acids to formula could benefit infants in other ways, such as with a boost in eyesight or immune function, they noted.
"There also remains the possibility that (fatty acids) could impact later cognitive development or more specific aspects of cognitive development such as attention, information processing, mood, or behavior."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends women breastfeed exclusively for six months, followed by at least another six months of nursing while solid foods are introduced.
For various reasons not all mothers are able to breastfeed their babies, so formula is still a good option. Formulas supplemented with fatty acids may offer babies other valuable benefits.
http://bit.ly/N5q59o Pediatrics, online May 28, 2012.