Could Breastfeeding Boost Social Development in Babies with Autism?

A new study suggests breastfeeding may help nurture the social development of some children who are at risk for autism.
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Science has long hailed the benefits of breastfeeding. Mother's milk has been credited with everything from promoting brain development in infants to boosting a child's future social status, and even increasing the odds that your kid won't need braces later in life. Now, a new study introduces another possible reason to consider nursing: It may help nurture the social development of some children who are at risk for autism.

To reach this conclusion, researchers administered an eye recognition test to a group of 98 babies, 44 of whom had an autism "risk" gene variation called CD38. (That gene helps release oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that's also released in moms during breastfeeding.) They showed the 7-month-old babies photos of a face with happy, angry or fearful eyes. The babies with CD38 who nursed for an average of six months or longer spent more time gazing at the happy eyes and turned away from the angry eyes.

What's more, those infants who showed a clear preference for the happy eyes could be more prone to future positive social behavior, such as showing empathy or concern for others, says lead researcher Kathleen Krol of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany.

But hang on to your nursing bras: The findings, published online earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are hardly etched in stone. Even the study authors caution that much more longer-term research is required before reaching any kind of definitive conclusion. They also emphasized that their findings do not suggest a link between breastfeeding and developing autism or easing its symptoms. And they certainly don't suggest that moms whose children are on the spectrum feel guilty about their choice not to breastfeed or not to breastfeed for very long.

As Krol herself explains, "It could be just as likely that the emotional biases we found in 7-month-old infants will diminish later in life and have little impact on the future behavior of the child."

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Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on TwitterPinterest, and Google+.

This video from the Kennedy Krieger Institute, in Baltimore, features three children who show early signs of autism spectrum disorder playing with toys and interacting and communicating with others. It compares the footage on each of these children to that of typical children in the same situations. “It helps parents to articulate to their pediatrician any behaviors that concern them,” says Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders.

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