When we talk about the benefits of breastfeeding, we usually think about all the good stuff that liquid gold provides babies. And indeed, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there’s “unequivocal evidence that breastfeeding protects against a variety of diseases and conditions” in infants. But what about moms — the ones faced with the actual decision about whether "breast is best"?
Well, there’s good news: We already know breastfeeding has benefits for moms (from the get-go, it can help the uterus contract after birth, thus reducing postpartum bleeding, and the calorie burn from breastfeeding can help with metabolism), but researchers are increasingly learning just how good breastfeeding can be for a mom’s overall health. This year alone, three studies have been released touting the long-term health benefits of breastfeeding for women.
In January, the results of a 30-year national study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that, compared to women who didn’t breastfeed at all, breastfeeding for six months or more across all births slashed a woman’s risk of developing type-2 diabetes by nearly half — while breastfeeding for a shorter duration (six months or less) reduced the risk by 25 percent.
Another study, published in January in the American Journal of Hypertension, looked at more than 3,000 nonsmoking postmenopausal women and found that those who nursed more children — and nursed them for longer periods of time — were less likely to suffer from hypertension after reaching menopause.
And in February, research was presented at the American College of Cardiology's 67th Annual Scientific Session showing long-term heart-health benefits for some breastfeeding moms — those who had normal blood pressure during pregnancy and who breastfed for at least six months. In addition, breastfeeding can offer women protection against breast and ovarian cancers.
“The important core of all of this is that breastfeeding is a two-person system,” says obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Alison Stuebe. Stuebe is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, the medical director of lactation services at UNC Health Care, a member of the board of directors of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine and a member of ACOG’s Breastfeeding Expert Work Group. “It impacts the health and physiology and well-being of the baby," she adds. "It also affects the physiology and well-being of moms.”
In fact, “if you think of breastfeeding, which can burn as many as 500 calories a day, as exercise in a chair, it makes sense that women who breastfeed for a long time might have some benefits,” Stuebe says. “And from an evolutionary standpoint, some pregnancy weight gain is fat that moms are stockpiling because their bodies expect to lactate. When that doesn't happen, we're changing physiology, and that can have consequences for health.”
But according to Stuebe, correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation. There are actually a few possibilities at play when we talk about breastfeeding’s relationship to a woman’s health. The first is the basic one: "Breastfeeding does stuff to moms’ physiology that confers health benefits," she explains. "Women who have trouble breastfeeding may be at higher risk of health problems down the line," she adds, "and the third [reason] is women who have the resources to breastfeed are more likely to have access to other resources that make them healthy.”
Resources and support, of course, are crucial and beneficial elements of breastfeeding success for most moms. “We need to make sure all women have access to resources that make it possible for them to breastfeed,” Stuebe says. “We want every mom to have complete information to make an informed decision. And we also need to recognize some women are not going to find breastfeeding works for them, even with all the systems of support, and we need to be fine with that and respect each woman's decision.” Amen to that.
But if you do want to — and are able to — breastfeed your baby, you can rest assured it's not just an act of motherly martyrdom. “Breastfeeding isn't just something that is good for baby — it’s associated with improved outcomes for moms, so there is something in it for her,” Stuebe says. “This isn't just an act of altruism and self-sacrifice.”
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