The health benefits of breastfeeding for babies have been well documented for decades. Babies who are breastfed have a lower risk asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Breastfed babies are also less likely to suffer from ear infections and stomach bugs.
But breastfeeding mothers enjoy the health benefits as well. Breastfeeding can reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. And the list of health benefits keeps growing.
According to new research from American Heart Association (AHA), breastfeeding women were less likely to develop heart disease, suffer a stroke, or die from cardiovascular disease. This is one of the first studies to find a distinct correlation between breastfeeding and reduced cardiovascular risk, and the results are impressive.
AHA researchers reviewed the medical records of nearly 1.2 million women from eight different studies conducted between 1986 and 2009 in Australia, China, Norway, Japan and the United States. Key findings included:
- Women who reported having breastfed in their lifetime had an 11% reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, compared to women who never breastfed.
- Women who breastfed at some point in their lives were 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease, 12% less likely to suffer strokes and 17% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
There are several theories on the link between breastfeeding and cardiovascular risk. One suggests the involvement of the hormones prolactin and oxytocin, both of which play important roles during lactation. Oxytocin has recently been shown to have several beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, including lower blood pressure, lower glucose levels, antioxidant effects, anti-inflammatory action, and lower body fat.
Another possibility is that weight loss attributed to breastfeeding may improve cardiovascular health. To research shows that mothers who exclusively breastfeed tend to burn an average of 500 extra calories per day. Because high weight is a known risk factor for future cardiovascular events, weight loss after pregnancy may reduce a woman’s risk of a cardiovascular event.
It is important to note that these are theories and more research is needed to better understand why breastfeeding reduces cardiovascular risk.
the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, then continued breastfeeding while introducing complementary foods until the child is 12 months old. In the AHA study, the benefits of breastfeeding increased with longer durations of breastfeeding – up to at least 12 months.
Although breastfeeding rates have increased over the past decade in the United States, only 1 out of 4 infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Additionally, black infants in the United States are less likely than white infants to be breastfed for any length of time, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Low breastfeeding rates add more $3 billion a year in medical costs for mother and child in the United States. But many women lack access to breastfeeding education, lack family and community support, or have jobs that prevent them from breastfeeding.
Fortunately, there are a wide variety of resources available to support breastfeeding mothers. Gynecologists and pediatricians are an excellent first point of contact. We can help mothers who experience breastfeeding pain and recommend solutions. Lactation specialists can also help troubleshoot and help women achieve their breastfeeding goals. Friends and family members may also be able to provide advice. Remember that there is never any shame in asking for help. The saying is true: it takes a whole village to raise a child.
Barriers to breastfeeding
Breastfeeding doesn’t always come easily. The first few weeks can be especially difficult with sore nipples, concerns about adequate milk supply and latching issues. Be sure to contact your gynecologist, pediatrician, or lactation specialist right away for help if things aren’t going well. Most women who wish to breastfeed are successful; it may just take time and additional support.
Some women feel pressured to breastfeed, and if they struggle or choose not to, the guilt can seriously damage their mental health. When breastfeeding your baby, trust your decision for what is best for you and your family. Breastfeeding is not an “all or nothing” situation – mothers can breastfeed their baby as much as possible and then supplement with formula. Even a small amount of breastfeeding can help both mother and baby.
If a woman cannot or chooses not to breastfeed, there are other ways to reduce cardiovascular risk. I encourage all new mothers to eat nutritious foods and gradually resume exercise a few weeks after giving birth. Many moms like to walk their baby in a stroller or carrier or try mom and baby exercise classes. Exercise, healthy eating and getting enough sleep can help reduce stress levels for new moms, another factor that impacts cardiovascular health.
New moms put a lot of pressure on themselves to do everything right, and in the end, breastfeeding isn’t the right decision for everyone. What’s most important is that you take care of yourself physically and emotionally and that your baby receives adequate nutrition, whether it’s breast milk, formula, or a combination.
Although I encourage everyone to try to continue breastfeeding, I would never want a mother to feel guilty if she cannot or chooses not to. Most importantly, moms can enjoy those precious first months while taking steps to ensure their long-term health and that of their growing families.
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