Breast Milk Alternative Boosts IQ and Executive Function in Kids

Summary: Researchers discovered a complex milk component that, when added to infant formula, can offer long-term cognitive benefits to children.

The study found that formula supplemented with milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) and lactoferrin for a year raised children’s IQ by 5 points at age 5 ½. The effect was most noticeable in children’s speed of processing information and visual-spatial skills.

This breakthrough offers a promising alternative for families who face challenges in breastfeeding.

Key Facts:

  • The study used formula enriched with milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) and lactoferrin, components naturally present in mammalian milk, but often removed in commercial infant formula.
  • Children who were fed this enriched formula had a 5-point IQ increase and displayed significantly improved executive function when tested at 5 ½ years old.
  • The benefits of enriched formula were sustained long after the feeding ended, supporting the idea that early nutrition has a long-term impact on brain development.

Source: University of Kansas

Breast milk is widely acknowledged as the most beneficial nutrition for infants, but many families face medical or logistical challenges in breastfeeding. In the U.S., just 45% of infants continue to be exclusively breastfed at 3 months of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

For decades, researchers have sought to create a viable complement or alternative to breast milk to give children their best start for healthy development. New research out of the University of Kansas has shown how a complex component of milk that can be added to infant formula has been shown to confer long-term cognitive benefits, including measures of intelligence and executive function in children.

Credit: Neuroscience News

The research by John Colombo, KU Life Span Institute director and investigator, along with colleagues at Mead Johnson Nutrition and in Shanghai, China, adds to the growing scientific support for the importance of ingredients found in milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) in early human development.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Pediatrics, showed that feeding infants formula supplemented with MFGM and lactoferrin for 12 months raised IQ by 5 points at 5 ½ years of age.

The effects were most evident in tests of children’s speed of processing information and visual-spatial skills. Significant differences were also seen in children’s performance on tests of executive function, which are complex skills involving rule learning and inhibition.

All forms of mammalian milk contain large fat globules that are surrounded by a membrane composed of a variety of nutrients important to human nutrition and brain development, Colombo said. When milk-based infant formula is manufactured, the membrane has typically been removed during processing.

“No one thought much about this membrane,” Colombo said, “until chemical analyses showed that it’s remarkably complex and full of components that potentially contribute to health and brain development.”

The 2023 study was a follow-up to one that Colombo also co-wrote with colleagues in Shanghai, China, published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2019. That study showed that babies who were fed formula with added bovine MFGM and lactoferrin had higher scores on neurodevelopmental tests during the first year and on some aspects of language at 18 months of age.

The global nutrition research community has been looking at MFGM for about a decade, Colombo said. Because the membrane is made up of several different components, it isn’t known whether one of the components is responsible for these benefits, or whether the entire package of nutrients act together to improve brain and behavioral development.

This shows a happy baby.
When milk-based infant formula is manufactured, the membrane has typically been removed during processing. Credit: Neuroscience News

These benefits were seen in children long after the end of formula feeding at 12 months of age.

“This is consistent with the idea that early exposure to these nutritional components contribute to the long-term structure and function of the brain,” said Colombo, who has spent much of his career researching the importance of early experience in shaping later development.

About this neurodevelopment research news

Author: Jen Humphrey
Source: University of Kansas
Contact: Jen Humphrey – University of Kansas
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Improved Neurodevelopmental Outcomes at 5.5 Years of Age in Children Who Received Bovine Milk Fat Globule Membrane and Lactoferrin in Infant Formula Through 12 Months: A Randomized Controlled Trial” by John Colombo et al. Journal of Pediatrics


Improved Neurodevelopmental Outcomes at 5.5 Years of Age in Children Who Received Bovine Milk Fat Globule Membrane and Lactoferrin in Infant Formula Through 12 Months: A Randomized Controlled Trial


To evaluate the neurodevelopmental outcomes at 5.5 years of age in children who were previously randomized to cow milk–based infant formula (control) or similar formula (milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin) with added sources of bovine milk fat globule membrane and bovine lactoferrin through 12 months of age.


Children who completed study feeding were invited to participate in follow-up assessments: cognitive development across multiple domains (primary outcome; Wechsler Preschool & Primary Scale of Intelligence, 4th Edition), inhibitory control/rule learning (Stroop Task), flexibility/rule learning (Dimensional Change Card Sort), and behavior/emotion (Child Behavior Checklist).


Of 292 eligible participants (control: 148, milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin: 144), 116 enrolled and completed assessments (control: 59, milk fat globule membrane + LF: 57). There were no group demographic differences except family income (milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin significantly higher). Wechsler Preschool & Primary Scale of Intelligence, 4th Edition composite scores (mean ± standard error) for Visual Spatial (100.6 ± 1.7 vs 95.3 ± 1.7; P = .027), Processing Speed (107.1 ± 1.4 vs 100.0 ± 1.4; P < .001), and Full-Scale IQ (98.7 ± 1.4 vs 93.5 ± 1.5; P = .012) were significantly higher for milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin versus control, even after controlling for demographic/socioeconomic factors. Stroop Task scores were significantly higher in milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin versus control (P < .001). Higher Dimensional Change Card Sort scores (P = .013) in the border phase (most complex/challenging) were detected, and more children passed the border phase (32% vs 12%; P = .039) for milk fat globule membrane versus control. No group differences in Child Behavior Checklist score were detected.


Children who received infant formula to 12 months of age with added bovine milk fat globule membrane and bovine lactoferrin versus standard formula demonstrated improved cognitive outcomes in multiple domains at 5.5 years of age, including measures of intelligence and executive function.

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  1. Could you respond to those commenting about the discrepancy in study participants? Those given the MFGM, and thus benefiting, were of higher income? Also, can you respond to the choice in article title? This study was sponsored by one of the largest manufacturers of formula, so it appears very misleading. You do a disservice as a neuroscience news source when you mislead with titles

  2. “Breast Milk Alternative Boosts IQ and Executive Function in Kids”

    This title is misleading, IMO. It gave me the impression that a discovery had been made that is superior to breast milk. A more accurate title may read “infant formula additive boosts…”

    In fact it is a breast milk derivative, affirming once again that we cannot improve on nature.

  3. There are alternatives for women who are unable to breastfeed, human donor milk banks.

    Which formula company funded this research? Who are your sponsors. Can you give full disclosure? Yes some moms are unable to produce “ a full supply” but every drop of their milk matters to their infant. Also Insurance companies including medicaid covers human donor milk for fragile infants and mothers that struggle with supply. This is a fantastic option. Formula should be the last resort. All of the benefits the formula company tries to replicate in their products can never replace or truly compete with what is natural and free of charge.

      1. I came here to say what others have said: the title is misleading. The tone of the entire article is typical of formula industry propaganda. It might be better to say that another overlooked component of breastmilk has been discovered, bringing formula a little closer to mimicking the ideal food for babies. Then let’s talk about barriers to breastfeeding, including societal discouragement, which is embedded in your article.

        1. Definitely, I agree we need to address societal discouragement when it comes to breastfeeding. We need to address things like why so few places provide safe spaces for nursing mothers to feed. How many women have been forced to feed their children in a dirty rest room while out of their home? I’d bet the vast majority, based on experience and conversations with mothers. We also need to address the negative view of “feeding for too long”. At the end of the day, how one feeds their child is their own choice. I do not believe that either side should condemn the other for their decisions. That is not helpful to anyone.

  4. Seems from the repeated responses, that this is personal view, is not scientifically backed and has emotional roots in personal choice about feeding infants. With formula. Or is it conflict of interest? I note that there is no published conflicts of interest in this article so I researched it myself. Turns out it was was funded by previous employees of Johnson Nutrition. Which are an infant formula company. Funny that.

    Conflict of interest statement
    Declaration of competing interest J.C. and D.J.S. were provided funding to design the neurodevelopmental testing protocol. B.Y.L. was previously employed by Mead Johnson Nutrition. S.S.W., J.L.W., C.L.H., and W.Z. are employees of ReckittǀMead Johnson Nutrition. All other authors reported no conflicts of interest. The Journal policy requires editors and reviewers to disclose conflicts of interest and to decline handling or reviewing manuscripts for which they may have a conflict of interest. The editors and reviewers of this article have no conflicts of interest. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

  5. Agreed. And then they use the time old excise “Not everyone can breastfeed”. For those who can, the title is misleading!! The title is the issue. The misleading info is the issue! Not the study itself!

  6. I have both formula fed and breast fed my children. This article title is so misleading. While there may be some formulas better than OTHER formulas, breast milk will always be superior. It’s science. Yes, some mothers can’t breast feed but there are milk banks and other amazing resources for obtaining breastmilk so your argument is invalid Science News.
    Continuing the narrative formula companies have worked to gain by destroying breast feeding normality is idiotic. Your title caters to them. And your title caters to scared mothers who don’t know any better.
    “Breast Milk Alternative Boosts IQ and Executive Function in Kids” would better be “Specific Formula Brand Boosts IQ and Executive Function in Kids Above Other Brands”.

  7. As someone who can’t breast feed thank you for the research. So sick of the breast is best movement when in reality fed is best! What do people expect me to do just starve my baby? Or do they expect me to just not have children because I can’t breast feed. Some people forget that the reason formula was created was stop the rise of death in children due to mothers not being able to produce enough milk to feed their child. Since the creation of formula we have been able to put a huge dent in infant mortality due to hunger. It’s truly amazing to have the research to develop a formula closer to breast milk. Having alternatives is better then having nothing at all.

    1. I’m so glad you appreciate this Sarah. I completely understand where you are coming from, and unfortunately a number of people here and on our other forums are being less than sensitive to mothers, like yourself. Regardless of what any study says, mothers do all they can for their infants. Making sure their child is fed and thriving is far more important than slugging away at breastfeeding when you are unable to produce milk, and risking your child’s health and development. I am sorry if some of the commenters are offensive. I know EBF is a contentious issue only too well.

    2. Sarah, the problem is this: formula is a necessary medical intervention in cases where breastfeeding does not work, for whatever reason. But formula companies want to expand their customer base, so they subtly undermine mothers’ confidence in their ability to breastfeed, and do their best to portray people who criticize their tactics as criticizing those who use formula. It’s misdirection, and it’s insidious. Of course you need to feed your baby, and formula is a lifesaver when breastmilk is not available. But formula companies should not seek to expand their customer base by undermining mothers’confidence and insinuating false equivalence. We’re not judging you. We’re judging them.But they want you to think we’re judging you.

  8. So then what formula brands specifically which formula is best to get that contains all of that?

    1. As far as I’m aware, this is still a project in research. I don’t think any companies have started producing this new formula yet or when/if it will be available. This is just the research perspective, not connected to what the companies are doing.

  9. Now, if we could only get our formula companies in the US to adhere to safety policies and stop killing babies by cutting corners. Adding these healthy ingredients does nothing if we can’t trust that corporations care more about the innocent helpless beings they’re feeding than their profits. Formula has saved countless babies from malnurishment and certain death, but it’s hard to trust these companies who are choosing to profitize the feeding of our most at risk humans.

  10. Agree with others. Very misleading. People already have enough of a complex breastfeeding. You do both a disfavor with the title. Best to call it, “closer to equivalents.”

  11. This is a terribly constructed study. “There were no group demographic differences except family income (milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin significantly higher).” That, scientifically speaking, is a HUGE demographic difference. It is VERY well documented that, overall, children in higher income homes already DO have higher IQs and better cognitive ability (regardless of infant feeding method). I’m disappointed that, with the small study size and obvious demographic disparity, you are reporting this as “fact.” Very irresponsible.

  12. This should not been the news as it misleads the the readers. There is no and will never a substtute for Mother’ milk. I am a carbohydrate chemist and have synthesized some carbohydres in mother’ milk. I suggest every young woman , one should jump into the river if one does know how to swim. A woman should make her mind soild that she will feed her baby her breast milk befor she decides to hsve a baby. I have solid obseravation in support of this concept. Please don’t publish this type of news. Medicine has become business and money is the priority .
    Those who think they can replace it lack intelligence .Most likely they were unfortnate their mothers did not/ could not breast feed them

  13. The title of this article is horrible.
    Lots of people just read the title, without getting into articles anymore.
    You should be ashamed.
    It will easily get the hint that formula is better that breast milk. And NOTHING is better than BREAST MILK.

    1. Please remember there are many mothers who are unable to breastfeed for numerous reasons. While we fully support breastfeeding, we are sensitive to those who can not breastfeed. We would appreciate if our readers would be a little more sensitive to others. Thank you.

      1. Nobody is talking about breastfeeding here, it’s breast MILK. Which is categorically, and unequivocally the best milk. No infant formula can be as good as or better than it, scientifically proven across all sectors. Formula has its place in feeding infants that would otherwise die through lack of access to breastmilk – for many reasons, both unavoidable and by choice. But it can only ever be nutritionally ‘enough’, never nutritionally excellent, as breastmilk, human milk, is.

        1. Most of the comments here and over on our other forums are specifically related to breastfeeding. I am aware of what the study says. I’m also aware of increased bullying, entitled remarks, condemnation, and a total lack of empathy for the millions of women who are unable to breastfeed their children coming from our readers, which is not appreciated.

      2. No one is being insensitive. No one said the study itself is wrong. What is WRONG is your misleading title. And you know it is misleading. I breast fed and formula fed my children. I have been on both sides. Even I know that based on science breast milk is considered the best alternative. Stating a fact is not being insensitive. What is insensitive is writing a title that preys on new, exhausted mothers who don’t know any better.

  14. Glad to see that you were immediately clear that no breastmilk alternative is as good as actual breastmilk in the article, but the headline doesn’t specify what the improvement is relative to. I thought that it was breastmilk, and was very disappointed in the seeming quality drop of this article compared to most Neuroscience News articles until I clicked through and read it.

    Breastmilk alternative companies are still actively trying to make breastfeeding harder in the US, and I don’t think we should help them or accept that they’re doing it. I got direct marketing from a big breastmilk alternative manufacturer claiming that their new formula makes kids so smart! The impression was clearly meant to be FOMO – if I stop breastfeeding and switch to their breastmilk alternative, there will be sCiEnCe on my side. They’re still trying to give the impression, even if they can’t say it, that breastmilk alternative is not just as good as but better than the original. Sure, they gave the required reference point – in tiny font placed on top of the image of the giant presumably smart baby.

    I imagine the headline that’s very similar to breastmilk alternative marketing was an accident, but would you please consider adding the comparison point to it?

    1. I don’t think that’s the meaning of the research at all. We are all aware of the benefits of breastfeeding, but some mothers are unable to breastfeed for a plethora of reasons. I think the findings demonstrate that improving the formula milk but supplementing with MFGM has cognitive benefits. For those who are unable to breastfeed, improving the quality of the formular to provide similar benefits to breastmilk is a huge improvement.

    2. I agree entirely, it will mislead lots of people. Those that can’t breastfeed, that’s great news, but it should’ve been said very, very differently

  15. Marketing Scam. Do not feed this to your babies because it’s not proven what mfgm actually does and the ill effects it might cause.
    Natural breast milk from the mother is scientifically proven to be best for babies.

      1. You keep posting how some mothers are unable to breastfeed, and how low the percentage is of actual exclusively breastfed babies in the u.s. while completely skipping over the fact that like 98% of mothers can indeed breastfeed. But formula companies, n articles with headlines like this one encourages them not to breastfeed. Jobs making it difficult to pump. When if you guys really truly cared about mothers being able to breastfeed, and human babies receiving human milk, you would go out your way to improve breastfeeding outcomes instead of going out your way to mislead parents into thinking formula is (on the low end) just as good as breastmilk, or (on the high end) more superior than breastmilk.

        Fyi. With proper knowledge and support, most moms will breastfeed. And most moms want to breastfeed. They should have that support. Not have formula shoved down their throats the moment they are pregnant.

        1. 10% of women are physically unable to breastfeed, not 2%. Plus, not all women who can biologically fed want to or can for a number of reasons. Do we really need to discuss why some women with sexual trauma may not want to breastfeed? Do we need to explore psychological reasons as to why some women are mentally or physically not in a place where they can? What about those on medications that are harmful for babies that can be passed via breast milk? What about infants who are put up for adoption, raised by other family members, etc? There are a lot of variables that you are not considering.

          We advocate for breastfeeding. However, we advocate more for our readers not being made to feel small or less than because of their bodily functions, and even choices. That helps no one.

      2. You are missing the point. We acknowledge that that many mothers are unable to breastfeed and this fonding is clearly a win for them. This doesn’t change the fact that the title compared the new findings relative to breastfeeding. The argument is not attacking your research but your misleading language. Try this: “New baby formula component boosts intelligence and IQ”. Voilà!

      3. It may still be better to have access to donor breastmilk if unable to do so. If it was easier to find reliable and screened donors more people would likely benefit but that wouldn’t be good for big food companies who profit from the narrative that formula is more convenient and not too bad. Good to see that there are improvements being made to infant formula, though. Long overdue.

        1. I completely agree. I think a lot of people may be concerned about using donor milk, which is understandable. It’s good to see the formula companies are trying to improve and potentially mimic natural milk a little better.

  16. This headline is inaccurate and not in line with the comparison provided by the publication. The headline should indicate that an additive to breast milk alternatives can enhance outcomes for children when mothers are not able to provide (or the child can not consume) breast milk. This headline appears to indicate that children fed formula with this additive have superior outcomes to those fed breast milk, which was not measured or addressed in the publication. I’m not sure if this is an attempt to advocate for pro-formula, or if reformatting the conclusions of the publication are better clickbait?

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