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Consuming sugary drinks while breastfeeding could cause cognitive issues in infants: study

TORONTO — A new study looking at the diets of breastfeeding mothers has found that too many sugary beverages could negatively impact the cognitive development of their infants.

The research, published Tuesday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at the association between early childhood development and sugary beverages consumed by mothers in the months after they gave birth.

“Breastfeeding can have so many benefits,” Dr. Michael I. Goran, one of the study’s authors and program director for diabetes and obesity at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said in a press release. “But we’re seeing that breast milk is influenced by what moms eat and drink even more than we realized.”

To measure the effect of sugary pops and juices, 88 mothers were recruited to report how many of these beverages they drank per day during the first month of breastfeeding their new infant.

They were also followed up on after six months of breastfeeding to assess their daily consumption of sugars and sugary drinks at that point as well.

At the 24-month mark, when the children were now two years old, they were assessed using the Bayley-III Scales of Infant Development. This is a system designed to assess the progress of infants through specific developmental play tasks.

Infants are tested on things such as attention to familiar and unfamiliar objects, looking for a fallen object, and play that involves pretending. Those are among tasks that assess recognition, understanding and motor skills, all with the aim of identifying early which children might need more help in their development.

“Moms who reported greater consumption of sugary beverages and juices had children with poorer cognitive development scores,” the study stated.

Researchers controlled for things such as maternal age and education level, as well as infant sex and birth weight.

As sugary drinks and juices contain fructose, the study also tracked the mothers’ consumption of whole fruits to see if that source of fructose produced the same outcome. They found no association between fruit consumption and infant cognitive scores.

“Maternal [sugary beverages and juices] intake was therefore determined to be the source of maternal fructose intake responsible for the effect on infant neurodevelopmental outcomes, and not maternal whole fruits,” the study explained. The fructose in fruits is “bound to fiber and in lower amounts,” whereas the fructose in juices and soft drinks is considered “free fructose,” which is metabolized at a different rate.

Previous studies have looked at whether sugary drinks in a mother’s diet during pregnancy itself can affect the fetus long-term, but sugary drinks consumed during the lactation period had not been examined before in terms of how they can affect “infant brain function,” the study said.

Researchers acknowledge that sugary beverages consumed during the pregnancy itself could also have impacted the results, as they could not distinguish between pre and postnatal effects on the infants.

The results of the study suggest that limiting sugars such as those found in soft drinks may have benefits for not only the health of mothers, but also that of their children.

“Moms may not realize that what they eat and drink during breastfeeding may influence their infant’s development down the road, but that’s what our results indicate,” Goran said.

“Ultimately, we want babies to receive the best quality nutrition,” Paige K. Berger, a research fellow and first author of the study, said in the release. “Our findings may be used to guide future nutrition recommendations for moms during breastfeeding, to better ensure that babies are getting the right building blocks for cognitive development.” 

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