Can breastfeeding prevent autism?

A new study was published suggesting increasing positive social gazes while breastfeeding reduces the likelihood of the expression of a gene linked to autism.  The increase in oxytocin in  this social expression may provide a buffer for infants.  However, I would imagine it’s important to understand positive mutual gaze and how to enhance it without being intrusive toward the baby.  Creating a ‘chase and dodge’ interaction (Where the mother chases after eye contact from the baby and the baby tries to escape by looking away) would, in my opinion, not promote a positive social interaction between mother and baby.  Instead, a more helpful approach would be for the parent to wait for eye contact from the baby and then engage the baby with smiling and lulling sounds. Below is a brief summary of the study: 

Can breastfeeding prevent Autism?
Barbara Geller, MD reviewing Krol KM et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2015 Sep 29.
Breastfeeding increased gaze at happy facial expressions, and decreased gaze at angry ones, in infants with an autism risk genotype.

Breastfed infants show enhanced cognition at ages 3 to 7 years (JAMA Pediatr 2013; 167:836), but how breastfeeding affects social behavior is less studied. Because breast milk contains oxytocin, which enhances social bonding, breastfeeding might improve social interaction. To test this theory, researchers conducted studies of gaze to emotional stimuli (happy, angry, fearful faces) in 98 infants aged 7 months, who were categorized as having experienced low or high exclusive breastfeeding (means, 4 and 6 months).

Infants with high levels of breastfeeding gazed longer at happy faces and less at angry faces, but only if they were homozygotes for a specific variant on the CD38 gene that raises the risk for autism (Neurosci Res 2010; 67:181). Gaze to fearful faces did not differ by breastfeeding status.

COMMENT

Finding that breastfeeding enhances social behavior in infants with a genetic variant that raises autism risk has translational importance. Specifically, mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) should be strongly encouraged to breastfeed their new infants because of the high sibling recurrence rate of ASD (Pediatrics 2011; 128:e488). Because this CD38 variant is also associated with lower oxytocin plasma levels, the improved social gaze in these infants may be due to breast-milk–supplied oxytocin somewhat lessening the impact of genetically lower plasma levels. These findings are consistent with other study findings of lower parent-infant gaze synchrony when a parent had CD38 autism risk alleles and low plasma oxytocin (Biol Psychiatry 2012; 72:175).

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About unconcsiousawareness

"As a psychotherapist, I am privileged to bare witness to personal growth --A growth that is achieved through the work of understanding one's self with the help of another." With over 10 years of experience providing psychotherapy to adults, children and families, Ms. Degeneffe practices psychoanalysis, CBT, and DBT. With a wide range of clinical experience, Ms. Degeneffe has helped adults and children struggling with life adjustment issues, depression, anxiety, trauma and ADHD.
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