ADHD and Breastfeeding: Connections, Causes, and Concerns

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Breastfeeding is recommended for all infants. It is the best protection against diseases and many health conditions for children, and it offers numerous benefits for mothers. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, followed by continued breastfeeding up to 1 year or longer while complementary foods are introduced.

Many studies have confirmed that breastfeeding improves cognitive development in children, but many researchers are promoting a link between ADHD and breastfeeding: specifically, the longer babies are breastfed, the less likely they are to develop symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder in children.

ADHD is thought to be caused by underactive neurotransmitters in the brain and a poorly developed prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that control impulsivity and executive functions). Children exhibit ADHD in different ways,  often depending on their age and gender, but common symptoms include hyperactivity, impulsivity, and lack of focus.

So, what really is the connection? Read on to explore what we know and what we don’t about ADHD and breastfeeding.

Can breastfeeding prevent ADHD?

Several analyses have confirmed a link between ADHD and breastfeeding. Overall, researchers found that children who were diagnosed with ADHD were less likely to be breastfed than children who were not diagnosed with ADHD. And, the longer children were breastfed, the lower their risk. The studies considered other factors that may contribute to the development of the disorder, such as marital status, education level of the parents, complications during pregnancy, birth weight of the child, and possible genetic links to ADHD, but these factors did not impact the findings, underscoring the importance of breastfeeding.

There is little evidence to help us understand just why breastfeeding seems to offer protection against ADHD, but several theories exist. First, there could be a component in the breast milk itself (such as a rich blend of fatty acids) that promote optimal brain development, or, second, breastfeeding may promote a special bond between mother and child that helps prevent the development of behavioral issues.

Many factors other than breastfeeding contribute to the development of ADHD and plenty of children who were breastfed are eventually diagnosed with the disorder. Environmental and genetic factors certainly contribute to cognitive development, and family relationships, upbringing, and household dynamics also play a role. There is certainly not enough evidence to claim that breastfeeding prevents ADHD or that not breastfeeding causes ADHD.

Can breastfeeding treat my child’s ADHD?

 Several years ago, a mom made headlines because she breastfed her 4-year-old to control his ADHD symptoms. There is no evidence to support this practice, though many cultures and belief systems advocate breastfeeding past the recommended 1-year mark. Extended breastfeeding does not offer the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding during infancy, but the bond that it maintains between mother and child can certainly play a role in a child’s emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development.

If I have ADHD, can I still breastfeed?

While ADHD is primarily thought of as a disorder of childhood and adolescence, adults can suffer from the disorder, as well, both as a chronic condition persisting from childhood or a newly diagnosed condition. Approximately 4% of women of child-bearing age take medications for ADHD.

As with any medication you take while pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the risks the drug poses to you and your baby. Most stimulants (the common type of drug used to treat ADHD symptoms) have not been shown to enter breastmilk in high enough quantities to negatively affect infants, but, if you take a stimulant, monitor your baby for excessive agitation, insomnia, and reduced weight gain.

You and your doctor will need to decide on the safest drug and dose for you while you are breastfeeding, but, if you require medication to control your symptoms, you will likely be able to continue taking it.

A mother who does not take medications for ADHD may experience unwanted effects and be unable to maintain control of her ADHD symptoms. Uncontrolled symptoms may negatively impact a mother’s day-to-day functioning and her ability to care for a newborn. Mothers with ADHD symptoms may be less effective at disciplining their children and may have low self-esteem.

If you have ADHD and do not wish to take medications while you are breastfeeding, cognitive-behavioral therapy or other psychosocial treatments may help improve executive functioning and manage ADHD symptoms.

What really matters?

The bottom line from most experts is to breastfeed if you are able and to establish a loving bond with your baby (whether it includes breastfeeding or not) to promote the healthiest emotional and intellectual development.

If you breastfeed, keep yourself healthy by eating a balanced diet (one that’s good for you and your baby), engaging in physical activity, and talking to your healthcare providers about the medications you take. When he’s ready, introduce your baby to healthy foods that promote brain health and development.

Jennifer Gibson
Dr. Jennifer Gibson earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from Clemson University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the Medical College of Virginia School of Pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University. She trained as a hospital pharmacist and is the author of clinical textbooks, peer-reviewed journal articles, and continuing education programs for the medical community, as well as a contributor to award-winning healthcare blogs and websites. In her free time, she enjoys running, reading, traveling, and spending time with her family.

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