It has long been known that there are many physical and mental health benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and babies. But can these benefits be due to genetic changes induced by breastfeeding? New research suggests that connection.
The research, published in the September 2018 edition of the Pediatrics, was led by Barry M. Lester, PhD, director of Women & Infants Hospital's Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and a member of Care New England Medical Group.
"What we found is that maternal care changes the activity of a gene in their infants that regulates the infant's physiological response to stress, specifically the release of the hormone cortisol," explained Dr. Lester.
Dr. Lester and his colleagues looked at more than 40 full-term, healthy infants and their mothers, one-half of whom breastfed for the first five months and one-half of whom did not. They measured the cortisol stress reactivity in infant saliva using a mother-infant interaction procedure and the DNA methylation (changing the activity of the DNA segment without changing its sequence) of an important regulatory region of the glucocorticoid receptor gene which regulates development, metabolism, and immune response.
"Breastfeeding was associated with decreased DNA methylation and decreased cortisol reactivity in the infants. In other words, there was an epigenetic change in the babies who were breastfed, resulting in reduced stress than those who were not breastfed," said Dr. Lester.
The research team also included Linda LaGasse, PhD, and James F. Padbury, MD, of Women & Infants Hospital/Warren Alpert Medical School; Elisabeth Condradt, PhD, of the University of Utah; Edward Tronick, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Boston; and Carmen Marsit, PhD, of Emory University.
Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, a Care New England hospital, is one of the nation's leading specialty hospitals for women and newborns. A major teaching affiliate of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University for obstetrics, gynecology, and newborn pediatrics, as well as a number of specialized programs in women's medicine, Women & Infants is the ninth largest stand-alone obstetrical service in the country and the largest in New England with approximately 8,700 deliveries per year. Women & Infants is a Designated Baby-Friendly® USA hospital, a U.S.News & World Report 2014-15 Best Children's Hospital in Neonatology, and a 2014 Leapfrog Top Hospital. The Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology ranked number 11 in U.S. News & World Report's 2019 Best Medical Schools specialty ranking.
Women & Infants has been designated as a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence by the American College of Radiography; a Center of Excellence in Minimally Invasive Gynecology; Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence in Perinatal Biology and in Reproductive Health by the National Institutes of Health (NIH); and a Neonatal Resource Services Center of Excellence. It is one of the largest and most prestigious research facilities in high risk and normal obstetrics, gynecology, and newborn pediatrics in the nation, and is a member of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Maternal Fetal Medicine Units Network, Neonatal Research Network, and Pelvic Floors Disorders Network, as well as the National Cancer Institute's Gynecologic Oncology Group.