August 7, 2018
By Katie Douglas
Editor’s Note: We continue to celebrate National Breastfeeding Month by highlighting benefits of breastfeeding, its impact on fertility, and practical applications for family planning. This brief overview of beneficial aspects of breastfeeding for nursing mothers is part of a series written by Katie Douglas, an intern with FACTS this summer.
As discussed in last week’s post, one of the many benefits of lactation is the period of infertility it provides. This lactation-induced amenorrhea can be optimized by the frequency and duration of breastfeeding and used effectively as a natural or fertility awareness based method of family planning. Many benefits are well documented for children who breastfeed, which is an important reason for women to nurse for as long as possible. While these benefits relayed to the child are perhaps the most compelling reason to breastfeed, the positive effects breastfeeding has on mothers cannot be neglected. Today, we will expand upon the positive effects of lactation on women.
Pregnant women who have suffered from postpartum depression often fear a recurrence of this condition with subsequent pregnancies. An extensive survey of the literature suggests that breastfeeding may increase hormonal feedback that protects women from experiencing postpartum depression. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of depression by helping a new mother feel more bonded to her child and more confident in her ability to care for him or her effectively, by helping regulate the sleep and feeding patterns of mother and baby, and by placating the child’s temperament through consistent feedings.[i]
Beyond its benefits related to mental health and wellbeing, breastfeeding enhances a woman’s cardiovascular health. During the postpartum period, systolic blood pressure and heart rate were found to be significantly lower among lactating mothers compared to mothers feeding formula to their children. Stress was also found to be lower in breastfeeding mothers. Together, these cardiovascular benefits may lead to improved outcomes and lower the risk of future disease.[ii] Indeed, women who never breastfeed were found to have a 29% higher likelihood of developing hypertension in their lifetime.[iii]
Breastfeeding may improve a woman’s likelihood of maintaining a healthy weight for many years. In one investigation of perimenopausal and premenopausal women (ages 45 to 58), mothers who had breastfed children for at least six months retained amounts of visceral fat similar to women with no children. In contrast, mothers who had never breastfed had 28% more visceral adipose tissue, a larger waist-hip ratio, and a 6.49 cm larger waist circumference.[iv] These positive benefits may be even more notable for obese mothers. In a sample of 186 obese mothers, those who breastfed held on to less weight than non-breastfeeding obese mothers.[v] Mothers who retain less visceral fat and maintain a lower waist circumference have a reduced risk of hyperlipidemia and diabetes, which is imperative for women with gestational diabetes.[vi]
Lactation reduces the risk of some cancers that commonly afflict women. Most notably, breastfeeding has been found to lower the risk of future breast cancer in some mothers. Research also suggests that this risk reduction strengthens as the length of breastfeeding increases.[vii] A review published in Lancet of 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries found that each year a woman spends breastfeeding reduces her risk of breast cancer by greater than 4%.[viii] Similar to breast cancer but less understood is the reduced risk of endometrial cancer associated with breastfeeding, which also improves with increased length of time spent breastfeeding.[ix] A meta-analysis also found that prolonged nursing reduces the risk of ovarian cancer in some women. The researchers specifically noted that at least 8 to 10 months of breastfeeding may be the most beneficial for ovarian cancer risk reduction.[x]
This is a brief summary of some of the many benefits breastfeeding provides mothers, in addition to its effectiveness as a form of family planning for women who meet the LAM criteria. Women should be encouraged to breastfeed and supported if they wish to pursue this free and healthy natural option for feeding their infants and young children. Physicians and other medical professionals should be willing and able to provide resources and support to every woman interested in breastfeeding. All pregnant women deserve to be educated about the many benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and child so they can make informed decisions about feeding their children.
Editor’s Note: This resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics features articles on the benefits of breastfeeding as well as helpful tips for successful breastfeeding, weaning, times of transition, and much more.
Author Bio: Katie Douglas is a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studies Molecular & Cellular Biology. She has worked as a research assistant in the Nutrition and Cancer Epidemiology & Survivorship Lab on campus for almost two years. We are grateful for Katie’s outstanding contributions to our work at FACTS while serving as an intern with us and FMEC this summer.
[i] Figueiredo, B, et al. “Breastfeeding and Postpartum Depression: State of the Art Review.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23791236.
[ii] Groer, Maureen W., et al. Journal of Womens Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3653385/.
[iii] Stuebe AM, Schwarz EB, Grewen K, et al. Duration of lactation and incidence of maternal hypertension: a longitudinal cohort study. Am J Epidemiol. 2011;174(10):1147–1158.
[v] Sharma, Andrea J., et al. Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4294466/.
[vi] Schwarz, Eleanor B., and Melissa Nothnagle. “The Maternal Health Benefits of Breastfeeding.” American Family Physician, 1 May 2015, https://www.aafp.org/afp/2015/0501/p602.html.
[viii] Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer. Breast cancer and breastfeeding: collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries, including 50302 women with breast cancer and 96973 women without the disease. Lancet. 2002;360(9328):187–195.
[ix] Wang, L, et al. “Association between Breastfeeding and Endometrial Cancer Risk: Evidence from a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Nutrients., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 14 July 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26184301.
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