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Does the type of infant formula affect brain development?

Brain development differs in infants fed formula with added complex milk fat, compared to formula without this milk fat.

The World Health Organization estimates that nearly sixty percent of infants are not exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives.

While the WHO and doctors agree that breastfeeding is best, there are often many reasons why infants cannot be breastfed.

Some barriers to breastfeeding are work-related reasons, personal preference, an unsupportive partner, and physical or medical problems.

In those cases, infant formula is the go-to method to ensure the baby is healthy and well-fed.

The number and types of infant formula available can often be confusing. Some of the types available are cow’s milk-based, soy-based, hypoallergenic, and lactose-free.

Then new mothers have to decide on ready-to-use, concentrated liquid, or powdered.

How to choose the most suitable formula for your baby?

New mothers may find it difficult to choose the formula that is best for their baby and there is evidence to suggest that not all formulas are equal for infant brain development.

Questions still remain regarding which is the best formula milk for brain development. 

A clinical trial in infants fed with different types of milk formula

Researchers from the Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas recently completed a clinical trial in China testing the brain development of infants fed different types of formula.

Their results were published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

The research centered around the complex layer that surrounds fat droplets in cow’s milk, the milk fat globule membrane (MFGM).

This layer is not present in the homogenized formula, because the manufacturing process breaks up the fat droplets.

The study also included another component, lactoferrin (LF), which is known to be beneficial to infants.

How was the study conducted?

The study followed 291 infants from birth until their first birthdays. The infants were randomly assigned to be fed either a formula that contained MFGM+LF or a control formula that did not.

The children were assessed at multiple intervals throughout the study: 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 6 weeks, 3 months, 4 months, 6 months, 9 months, 12 months, and 18 months.

Participants were exclusively formula-fed through 6 months of age.

To assess the children’s brain development, the Bayley Scales of Infant Development test was used.

This is a commonly used test to measure children’s development and consists of tests to measure the children’s cognitive, language, motor, social-emotional, and adaptive skills.

What did the researchers conclude?

The researchers determined that infants receiving the MFGM+LF formulas scored higher on the developmental test from four to nine months of age.

They also showed accelerated brain development and improved sustained attention at one year old, with some improved language at eighteen months.

Babies fed the MFGM+LF formula grew at the same rate as those fed the control formula. Babies on the MFGM+LF formula experienced fewer respiratory infections, coughs, and diarrhea.

The researchers concluded that if breastfeeding was not an option for the baby, cow’s milk formulas that contained MFGM+LF were superior to other types.

These formulas are closer to human breast milk, and the research suggests that this is the best formula milk for brain development.

Written by Rebecca K. Blankenship, B.Sc.


  1. Li F, Wu S, Berseth C et al. Improved Neurodevelopmental Outcomes Associated with Bovine Milk Fat Globule Membrane and Lactoferrin in Infant Formula: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. J Pediatr. 2019. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2019.08.030
  2. Ogbuanu C, Probst J, Laditka S, Liu J, Baek J, Glover S. Reasons Why Women Do Not Initiate Breastfeeding. Women’s Health Issues. 2009;19(4):268-278. doi:10.1016/j.whi.2009.03.005
  3. Infant formulas – overview: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Published 2019. Accessed October 25, 2019.

Image by mariagarzon from Pixabay

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Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship is a freelance technical writer. She reviews, edits, and authors internal quality documentation required for regulatory compliance. She has twenty years experience in industrial pharma/medical device quality management systems and an honors BSc in chemistry. She is a natural born rule follower and enjoys applying this strength to help others be audit ready to meet regulatory requirements. She also loves learning about the latest scientific discoveries while writing for Medical News Bulletin. Her free time is spent as a full-time mom, encouraging can-do attitudes and cooperation in her three children.


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