MRI Shows Breastfed Babies’ Brains Develop Better/Faster than Formula or Mixed-Fed Infants

Support for the developing brain MRI images, taken while children were asleep, showed that infants who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula or a combination of formula and breastmilk. Images show development of myelization by age, left to right. Baby Imaging Lab/ Brown University

Support for the developing brain MRI images, taken while children were asleep, showed that infants who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula or a combination of formula and breastmilk. Images show development of myelization by age, left to right.
Baby Imaging Lab/ Brown University

Several weeks ago, I posted an article on how nursing facilitates the development of structures in the brain responsible for moral cognition, and a follow up article on how certain “high -touch” parenting practices (extended nursing, extravagant affection, skin-to-skin contact, “baby-wearing”, prompt response to cries) facilitate the development of the social brain.  In that latter article, I walked readers through how such parenting practices facilitate moral and social development.  This latest study from Brown University’s Baby Imaging Lab provides further, hard data exposing the myth that formula feeding is “just as good” as nursing or that short term nursing is “just as good” as extended breastfeeding.

A new study by researchers from Brown University finds more evidence that breastfeeding is good for babies’ brains.

The study made use of specialized, baby-friendly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brain growth in a sample of children under the age of 4. The research found that by age 2, babies who had been breastfed exclusively for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula exclusively or who were fed a combination of formula and breastmilk. The extra growth was most pronounced in parts of the brain associated with language, emotional function, and cognition, the research showed.

…Deoni and his team looked at 133 babies ranging in ages from 10 months to four years. All of the babies had normal gestation times, and all came from families with similar socioeconomic statuses. The researchers split the babies into three groups: those whose mothers reported they exclusively breastfed for at least three months, those fed a combination of breastmilk and formula, and those fed formula alone. The researchers compared the older kids to the younger kids to establish growth trajectories in white matter for each group.

The study showed that the exclusively breastfed group had the fastest growth in myelinated white matter of the three groups, with the increase in white matter volume becoming substantial by age 2. The group fed both breastmilk and formula had more growth than the exclusively formula-fed group, but less than the breastmilk-only group.

“We’re finding the difference [in white matter growth] is on the order of 20 to 30 percent, comparing the breastfed and the non-breastfed kids,” said Deoni. “I think it’s astounding that you could have that much difference so early.”

Deoni and his team then backed up their imaging data with a set of basic cognitive tests on the older children. Those tests found increased language performance, visual reception, and motor control performance in the breastfed group.

The study also looked at the effects of the duration of breastfeeding. The researchers compared babies who were breastfed for more than a year with those breastfed less than a year, and found significantly enhanced brain growth in the babies who were breastfed longer — especially in areas of the brain dealing with motor function.  READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE

Biology is theology.  God created our bodies in such a manner as to point to the fact that we were created for loving communion with him and one another.  Science consistently shows that when we cooperate with God’s plan for parenting by respecting the self-donative nature of the body and nursing babies through toddlerhood, we lay the groundwork for more effective social and moral reasoning.  To learn more about how the theology of the body reveals God’s plan for parenting, check our Parenting with Grace:The Catholic Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids and Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood.

Incidentally, I would like to offer my congratulations to Dr. Darcia Narvaez, the author of the original article I linked on nursing and moral cognition.  She was recently named a Fellow in the American Educational Research Association.  Congratulations Dr. Narvaez! And thank you for your excellent work promoting those parenting practices that are best at facilitating children’s moral and social development.

Hard to Say, “I’m Sorry” 3 Keys to an Effective Apology



Saying “sorry” and meaning it is about repairing relationship, not making ourselves feel better.  Check out my latest column for Our Sunday Visitor

Lent is a time of reparation — a season of sorrow for sins committed and expressions of a sincere desire to reform our lives. But what does it mean to be sorry? What are the components of real remorse?

Whether we are expressing sorrow to God, a spouse, family member or friend, it can be hard to say, “I’m sorry.” It can be even harder to say it well. Sometimes, when people say that they are sorry to us, we can feel like there is something missing. Often, it’s because there is. But what? As we express our sorrow to God this Lent for the ways that our lives do not reflect his plan for us, it can be important to make sure our “I’m sorry’s” have all the components of sincere remorse. Researchers note that good apologies involve three ingredients: empathy, restitution and objective criteria.

Apologies missing any one of these component often feel lacking, or incomplete and that nagging feeling can make it hard to experience real reconciliation. Here’s why these three components are such an important part of a complete apology.  (Continue Reading).

Meeting Your Needs AND Your Wants–A Godly Guide to Personal Fulfillment


“That’s not a need!  That’s a want!”

How often have you heard this?  How often have you said it?

We throw the words “need” and “want”around but do we really know what they mean?  Somehow, by labeling something a “want” many people–parents and spouses in particular–feel that they have a right to deny someone something.  Or, if we think something is a want and not a need, then we will often feel guilty even having it much less expressing it.

What is a need?  What is  a want.

Needs Defined:

A need refers to anything that sustains my overall well-being and fosters the full development of my physical, psychological, spiritual, or relational health.  In Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), Pope Paul VI argued that all individuals have a God-given right to receive everything they need to develop fully as persons.  As St. Irenaeus put it, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  In fact, as I argue in Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart, properly understood, all our needs and our wants ultimately point us back to God.

Now, that said, no one has an unlimited, completely unfettered right to meet their needs however they want whenever they want regardless of how it affects everyone else.

Which brings us to wants.

Wants Defined:

want represents the way we would prefer to meet a need.  If a need is the “what” we want, a want represents the “how” and “when” I wish I could get what I want.

A want is not a lesser need that may be ignored.  A want is a legitimate, though sometimes flawed,  attempt to express and meet a need.  Wants can be flawed in two ways.  First, they might not actually meet the need they represent.  For instance if I need more peace in my life, but I express that as “I want a divorce” the want (divorce) may actually–depending on the circumstances–actually make it harder to meet my need (greater peace in my life).

A second way a want could be flawed is if it prevents the people in my life from getting their needs met.  The Church teaches that each person has a God-given right to meet every single one of their needs.  We all have a divine right to receive everything we need to sustain and see to the full development of our physical, psychological, spiritual, and relational well-being BUT we also have an obligation to meet those needs in a manner that respects other people’s right to do the same.

If what I say I want could potentially conflict with meeting my needs or cause me to jeopardize someone else’s ability to meet their needs, that doesn’t mean I lose and don’t get to have my need met.  It means I have to identify the true need and explore alternative ways to meet it.

Step 1: Identifying the Need Behind the Want

If something you want seems somehow ridiculous, or impossible, don’t dismiss it.  Ask yourself instead, “How do I imagine I would benefit if I got that?”  The answer to this question is your true need.  The thing you are really trying to address by expressing the original want.  Here are few, silly, for instances just to illustrate how the process works.

“I want a T.V. in every room of my house!”
“Well, how do I imagine I’d benefit if I had a TV in every house?”
“As silly as it sounds, I’d really like to have the noise to distract myself from all the things I worry about constantly.”
NEED:   Inner-peace.  Obviously a TV in every room won’t fulfill that need so that want is flawed, but just ignoring the want would not make the need for inner peace go away.

“I want to win the lottery and win 60 million dollars”
“And how do I imagine I’d benefit if I had all that money?”
“I’d finally be able to stop worrying about paying all my bills.”
NEED:  A budget and/or a more effective financial plan.  Simply dismissing the lottery wish as a pipe dream (which it is) doesn’t identify or address the underlying need which will still demand to be met after we’ve been disabused of the fantasy of limitless wealth.

So, step one, when you have a want that is hard to fulfill, is to not dismiss it take it seriously, and imagine the benefit you would hope to achieve by pursuing that silly, selfish, or conflicted want. If you get stuck, again, don’t dismiss the want.  Bring it before God.  Tell him that you know that what you want is probably very practical, but ask him to help you identify the need that want is attempting to express and teach you to meet it in godly ways.

Step 2: Brainstorm alternatives

Now that you’ve identified the need, it’s time to brainstorm alternative ways to meet it.  To use our examples above, how might you learn new tools to silence the inner-worrier?  Prayer?  A more effective plan for getting it all under control.  Some time to reflect on past times you’ve successfully managed a mountain of responsibilities with God’s grace?  Alternatively, maybe it’s time to get some new tools or professional help?

Same with the need for a better budget or financial plan.  Can I make a better budget?  Do I need to talk with a financial planner? Or at least read some new books on budgeting and money management to get some good ideas?  Maybe I don’t feel that I want to, but to address the need for peace expressed by my desire to just ignore it all, maybe it’s just time to bite the bullet.

The point is, it does little good to dismiss a concern on the grounds that it is “just a want.”  There really is no such thing.  Every want is an attempt–albeit often flawed–to meet a deeper need that will most likely rebel against me or the people who love me if I ignore it or allow it to be ignored for too long.

Embrace both your needs and your wants.  Don’t dismiss them, but do reflect on them.  Bring them to God. And get whatever help you need to brainstorm a plan for identifying healthy, alternative ways to meet the needs behind even your silly wants.  It might turn out that they weren’t so silly after all.

For more information on how to meet your needs, especially when they seem to be in conflict with other people or other needs, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart. or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Tele-Counseling Practice to learn about how a faithful counselor can help you do a better job of getting your needs met in your marriage, family, or personal life.


Parenting Style Most Significant Factor Predicting Support for Trump, New Study Finds

Joseph Sohm /

Joseph Sohm /

Readers of Parenting with Grace, in which I discuss this very issue (not as it relates to Trump, but to other historic, cultural and political trends) will not be surprised by this latest study from the Univ of Massachusetts which found that what draws voters to Trump is not church affiliation, political leanings, socio-economic status, or educational level–but the parenting style in which you were raised.

Sound crazy?  It’s not as crazy as it sounds.  In fact,  are 60 years of research backing up the connection between parenting styles and voting patterns.  Here is the latest contribution to that body of literature as reported in the Washington Post.

One of the reasons that Donald Trump has flummoxed pollsters and political analysts is that his supporters seem to have nothing in common. He appeals to evangelical and secular voters, conservative and moderate Republicans, independents and even some Democrats. Many of his supporters are white and don’t have a college degree, but he also does well with some highly educated voters, too.

What’s bringing all these different people together, new research shows, is a shared type of personality — a personality that in many ways has nothing to do with politics. Indeed, it turns out that your views on raising children better predict whether you support Trump than just about anything else about you.

Matthew MacWilliams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted a poll in which Republicans were asked four questions about child-rearing. With each question, respondents were asked which of two traits were more important in children:

  • independence or respect for their elders;
  • curiosity or good manners;
  • self-reliance or obedience;
  • being considerate or being well-behaved.

Psychologists use these questions to identify people who are disposed to favor hierarchy, loyalty and strong leadership — those who picked the second trait in each set — what experts call “authoritarianism.” That many of Trump’s supporters share this trait helps explain the success of his unconventional candidacy and suggests that his rivals will have a hard time winning over his adherents.

When it comes to politics, authoritarians tend to prefer clarity and unity to ambiguity and difference. They’re amenable to restricting the rights of foreigners, members of a political party in the minority and anyone whose culture or lifestyle deviates from their own community’s.

“For authoritarians, things are black and white,” MacWilliams said. “Authoritarians obey.”

…MacWilliams found that the likelihood that participants in his poll supported Trump had little to do with how conservative they were — no surprise, as Trump’s positions on many issues are relatively moderate. Trump also appealed more or less equally to the likely Republican primary voters in MacWilliams’s sample regardless of their age or sex, income and level of education. Regular churchgoers and evangelicals were no more or less likely to support Trump, either.

Those with authoritarian views on raising children were, however. READ MORE





New Study: Extravagant Affection in Infancy Leads to Healthier, Happier, More Relational & Moral Adults


From new study accepted for publication in the journal, Applied Developmental Science.

Notre Dame professor of psychology Darcia Narvaez and two colleagues surveyed more than 600 adults. They asked about their childhood experiences. Darvaez was interested in things like how much affectionate touch did the adult receive as a child, how much free play, and what was family togetherness was like. What she found was, the adults who had positive childhood experiences evolved into adults with less anxiety and better mental health.

“These things independently, but also added up together, predicted the adults’ mental health, so they were less depressed, less anxious, and their social capacities — they were more able to take other people’s perspective. They were better at getting along with others and being open-hearted,” says Narvaez.

So, what does this mean for today’s parents?

Narvaez says parents should hold, touch and rock their babies and children and be responsive to their needs.

“What parents do in those early months and years are really affecting the way the brain is going to grow the rest of their lives,” explains Narvaez, “so lots of holding, touching and rocking. that is what babies expect. They grow better that way. And keep them calm, because all sorts of systems are establishing the way they are going to work. If you let them cry a lot, those systems are going to be easily triggered into stress. We can see that in adult hood — that people that are not cared for well, tend to be more stress reactive and they have a hard time self calming.”

Narvaez say free play inside and outside is important. It is also important that children have a positive, warm environment inside the home.

“That they feel like they belong — they are part of the family unit or the neighborhood community and part of that is to have a lot of activities that you do together,” says Narvaez, who recommends going to the park or playing a game rather than spending time on a smartphone or in front of a TV.

And for those parents that need a break, Narvaez says a community of caregivers is important. That means grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends should play an active role.

“We need to, as a community support families so they can give children what they need,” says Narvaez, “we really didn’t evolve to parent alone. Our history is to have a community of caregivers to help — the village, so that when mom or dad needs a break, there is someone there who is ready to step in.”

The research also showed that when children weren’t given things like affection, free play and a warm home environment, they turned into adults with decreased social and moral capacities.

Narvaez says humans, have evolved to need these important things from birth. Which is why, she recommends parents follow their instincts.  READ MORE

But Why Does This Matter?

OK. Let’ s take this apart. What could affection (or, nursing, for that matter, as I mentioned in a blog last week) possibly have to with moral development?  As I explain in Beyond the Birds and the Bees, my book for parents on raising moral kids, brain research shows that affection facilitates moral development and overall relationship in four ways;

1) stimulating the “social brain”
2) facilitating the development of mirror neurons
3) facilitating self-regulation
4) facilitating communication between the higher and lower brain.

Before you learn any moral lessons OR before you can competently and consistently act on the moral lessons you’ve learned, these four functions have to be as fully developed as possible. Otherwise, we end up fighting against ourselves when it comes to putting other people first and making good (but hard) moral choices.  Here’s what each of these functions has to with both  good relational and moral reasoning and how affection, nursing and other high-touch parenting practices facilitate the development of these functions.

1. Stimulating the Social Brain

High touch parenting practices like baby-wearing, nursing, and responding promptly to fussing, help stimulate the so-called, “social brain”; that is, structures in the brain that help us pick up on other’s emotional cues and adjust our behavior based upon how we perceive our actions are coming across. The more the baby can be close to mom (especially) the more that the baby learns to read more and more subtle facial and body cues, understand their meaning, and adapt to them accordingly. The more attuned to other’s responses I am, the better I am able to make choices that foster relationship, express care, and avoid giving offense–all important skills for both good relational and moral decision making.

2.  Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are structures in the social brain that allow us to get a “taste” of what other people are feeling.  If I walk into a coffee table, you might wince because your mirror neurons let you feel a little bit of my pain so that you can empathize with me and be motivated to attend to my injury.  High-touch, hands on parenting practices seem to stimulate the development of mirror neurons.  This aids moral development by fostering empathy–the ability to literally feel the impact one’s actions have on another.

3.  Self-Regulation

In order to make healthy relationship choices, delay gratification, or avoid lashing out impulsively when I have strong emotions, I need good self-regulation.  Self-regulation is actually “taught” one body to another.  High touch parenting practices help stimulate the young child’s parasympathetic (i.e., “calm-down”) nervous system.  When an infant or toddler is overwrought, they don’t have an easy time getting themselves back under control because their calm-down nervous system isn’t fully developed.  Picking the baby up and holding her close allows your calmer body to communicate with the baby’s stressed-out body.  The baby’s “calm-down” systems automatically start to synch the baby’s heart rate, respiration, temperature and other stress signs to the parent’s calmer heart rate, respiration, temperature, etc.  Just like parents teach baby’s to walk by holding her hand while she does it, parents teach baby’s and toddler’s body the steps of calming down by letting the child’s body learn regulation from the parents’ more mature calm-down systems.  The more a child is left to cry it out, the harder it is for the child’s parasympathetic nervous system to master the art of self-regulation because it does not have a consistent model to lean on and follow.

4.  Communication between higher and lower brain.

Finally, making good moral and relationship choices requires me to have the fastest possible communication between my lower brain (the seat of my impulses) and my higher brain (the seat of decision making). The impulse to do something actually occurs before our higher brain even becomes aware of it.  Unless my higher brain can “catch up” with the impulse that shoots up from my lower brain and redirect it,  I will simply do what my lower brain tells me to do (e.g. make a selfish choice, yell at you, cheat) before I am even aware of it. High touch parenting practices facilitate communication between the higher and lower brain by stimulating the production of the waxy, myelin sheath around nerve cells that allow electrical impulses to “slide” faster down the neuron. The “slipperier” our nerves are (i.e., the more well-myelinated they are) the faster they are able to send messages around the brain (like a child whooshing down a well-waxed sliding board).  Affection facilitates good moral and relational decision making by stimulating the production of the very substance that allows our brains to “think fast”,  harness inappropriate impulses and transform them into more appropriate actions.


Is the research saying that if you let your kids cry it out and you don’t nurse them that they will grow up to be axe murderers? Of course not.  What the research does say is that the more hands-on and high touch you can be as a parent, the more you are actively growing your infant’s and toddler’s social and moral brain. This gives your child a neurological leg-up on using all the good moral and relational lessons you will teach him later on.  God created our bodies to cooperate with making good, moral choices.  Of course he did. This is what it means to speak of the theology of our bodies. The more we can give our child’s brain the things it needs to cooperate with grace and make good moral/relationship choices the happier everyone will be. For more ideas about how you can cooperate with God’s plan for helping parents raise healthy, happy, moral kids, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees , Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids ,  Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 3 Years of Parenthood, and Discovering God Together:  The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids.