Health Benefits of Breastfeeding for Nursing Parents

Key Takeaways

  • Health agencies recommend breastfeeding to provide a range of health benefits to the baby, but it’s good for nursing parents, too.
  • A new study found that breastfeeding is associated with a lower likelihood of heart disease and stroke.
  • Other studies have found an association between breastfeeding and lower risk of postpartum depression, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.

Breastfeeding comes with a range of health benefits for babies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast milk is the best source of nutrition for most infants and lowers the risk for asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and ear infections. 

But breastfeeding isn’t just good for your little one. Studies have shown that it can lower the nursing parent’s risk of certain diseases and health conditions. And now new research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association shows that breastfeeding may also decrease the likelihood of heart disease and stroke.

“[The] benefits of breastfeeding for children are widely known. However, we believe that benefits for the mother are communicated poorly,” lead study author Lena Tschiderer, PhD, says. “Our analysis demonstrates clearly a relationship between breastfeeding and a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease in the mother’s later life.” 

Decreased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Previously there were some inconsistencies about the strength of association and the relationship between the duration of breastfeeding and the development of cardiovascular disease. “We reviewed the available literature on this topic and provided overall associations between breastfeeding and maternal risk for cardiovascular disease,” Tschiderer explains.

Lena Tschiderer

Benefits of breastfeeding for children are widely known. However, we believe that benefits for the mother are communicated poorly. Our analysis demonstrates clearly a relationship between breastfeeding and a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease in the mother’s later life.

— Lena Tschiderer

“The main finding of our study is that women who breastfed during their lifetime have a lower risk for future maternal cardiovascular disease compared to women who had given birth but never breastfed,” says Tschiderer.

The researchers analyzed data of more than one million women who had given birth and found that compared to women who never breastfed, women who breastfed had a 11% reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, a 14% decreased risk for coronary heart disease, a 12% reduced risk for stroke, and a 17% decreased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Lower Risk of Postpartum Depression 

CDC research based on the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS) shows that about one in eight women in the U.S. experience symptoms of postpartum depression. In some states, rates may be as high as one in five women. 

A study by researchers in the U.K. and Spain, published in the journal Maternal and Child Health, showed that mothers who breastfed were about 50% less likely to become depressed than mothers who did not breastfeed.

Another study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, found that women with multiple breastfed infants or a longer period of breastfeeding had a decreased risk of depression during the postmenopausal stage of life.

Lower Likelihood of Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, about one in eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer.

A study by the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer found that the risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3% for every 12 months a woman breastfed, compared to those who didn’t breastfeed. The 12-month period could be spent breastfeeding one child or cumulatively over multiple children

Another study found that Australian women who breastfed for more than 13 months were 63% less likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who breastfed for seven months or less. Additionally, people who breastfed multiple children for more than 31 months in total could reduce their ovarian cancer risk by up to 91%, compared to women who breastfed for 10 months or less.

Decreased Risk of Diabetes

A reduced risk of type 2 diabetes may be another health benefit of breastfeeding. A study published in April 2020 in Science Translational Medicine suggests that the energy needed to produce breast milk is part of the process that brings about permanent metabolic changes that may help protect against type 2 diabetes.

Those who breastfed babies for up to six months were 25% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who didn’t breastfeed at all. And breastfeeding for more than six months reduced the risk of type two diabetes by more than half.

What This Means For You

Breastfeeding can be hugely rewarding for both you and your baby, but it can also be challenging. Even if you’ve breastfed before, it’s a good idea to have as much support as possible. And if you have supply issues or sore nipples, ask your doctor or lactation consultant for help. 

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