Breastfeeding: It’s Not Just Babies Who Benefit
BREASTFEEDING BENEFITS FOR MOTHERS MAY EXCEED THE BENEFITS FOR THEIR BABIES
Doctors have long understood the benefits of breastfeeding for infants. Today, more and more people are recognizing the immense benefits of breastfeeding for mothers. To start with, breastfeeding significantly reduces a mother’s risks for both breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Lactogenesis suppresses estrogen and ovulation, an important factor in the growth of these cancers. A mother’s risk of breast cancer is reduced by 4% for every year she breastfeeds. Mothers who have ever breastfed reduce their risk of ovarian cancer by 25%. The beauty is that breastfeeding is something women can do to change their future risk of cancer. As opposed to mammograms, which allow early identification of cancer, breastfeeding offers women the option of actual prevention.
Mothers who breastfeed for as little as one month also reduce their risks of high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease. These reductions in disease risk hold true regardless of the woman’s race, income, education, and other socioeconomic factors.
THINK OF PREGNANCY AS AN 18-MONTH EXPERIENCE
Milk requires a woman’s energy resources to produce it. As mammals, our bodies get ready to produce milk as soon as a baby starts to grow. Pregnancy, it turns out, is not just a 9-month experience, it’s more like an 18-month effort. The ingredients for milk-making are meant to be consumed by the infant. If a mother’s body has prepared to lactate and doesn’t, these ingredients stick on the mother as belly fat. This visceral fat puts the mother at risk for diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other health problems. Mothers who never lactated typically end up with belly fat close to the size of a stick of butter.
In contrast, mothers who breastfed have, on average, a 6-centimeter smaller waist circumference, and if they do accumulate fat, it’s less likely to end up as visceral fat. Mothers who breastfed are more likely to end up “pear shaped,” where fat accumulates below their waistlines, as opposed to the more dangerous “apple shaped,” with belly fat that is linked to diabetes and heart disease.
BREASTFEEDING INCREASES IQs OF CHILDREN
We know from MRI comparisons that the brains of children fed with human milk develop differently from children fed with cow’s milk. Children’s brain development requires special fats that are not found in cow’s milk. The long-term consequences of a lack of these fats for babies fed nonhuman milk include an average loss of seven points in IQ. This difference has been known for years, but many in the U.S. have assumed that this difference came about because mothers who were rich and well-educated were more likely to breastfeed. However, a recent Brazilian study that followed children to 30 years of age counters these thoughts. In Brazil, rich and educated women were not more likely to breastfeed; even so, breastfed babies had higher IQ, more educational achievement, and higher incomes at 30 years of age.
THE COSTS TO SOCIETY OF NOT BREASTFEEDING ARE ENORMOUS
The health data are staggeringly clear; when breastfeeding is interrupted, both mothers and babies suffer, and our communities are unnecessarily burdened with costly health problems. The tragedy is that despite this, only 8% of our nation’s hospitals are following evidence-based practices in supporting breastfeeding, allowing their recognition as a “baby-friendly” hospital. We need a national conversation about making it easier for mothers to breastfeed, including paid maternity leave, on-site day care, and access to evidence-based maternity care for all.