Benefits for mothers

How will breastfeeding help me?

Breastfeeding has many benefits for mothers, research has shown. These benefits range from lowering the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke to promoting weight loss. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and endometriosis. Breastfeeding promotes mothers’ emotional well-being by reducing the risk of depression after childbirth and reducing stress by providing food security, being able to settle an unhappy baby quickly, and avoiding the cost and effort caused by using infant formula.

A) Preventing maternal cancer

Mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of cancer.

1) Breast cancer

Breastfeeding has been shown to lower the risk of breast cancer before and after menopause (CGHFBC 2002; Fortner 2019; Ip 2007; Islami 2015; Sangaramoorthy 2019; WCRF/AICR). The exact reason that breastfeeding protects mothers from breast cancer remains unknown. Lower rates of obesity, different levels of hormones, even the process of making milk have all been reported to have a role (Faupel-Badger 2013; Ing 1977).

2) Ovarian cancer

Breastfeeding decreases the rate of ovarian cancer, and the longer the mother breastfeeds, the lower the risk (Babic 2020; Ip 2007; Momenimovahed 2019).  

Some mothers have a higher risk of ovarian cancer because of a certain mutation of their genes (BRCA). One large study (Kotsopoulos 2020) of mothers with this mutation found that breastfeeding reduced the risk of ovarian cancer.  

3) Endometrial cancer

Breastfeeding has been shown to be associated with a reduction in the risk of endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of the uterus), and the longer the breastfeeding, the lower the risk. This effect levels out beyond six to nine months (Jordan 2017; Ma 2015).

B) Preventing disease of the blood vessels

1) Describing blood vessel disease

Blood brings essential oxygen and nutrients to every part of the body and flows through tubes called arteries. The blood returns to the heart through tubes called veins.

Arteries can become diseased resulting in narrowing or even in blockages to blood flow:

  • Narrowing of the arteries to the heart causes chest pain and blockages cause a heart attack. This is called coronary artery disease.
  • Blocking of an artery that brings blood to the brain causes a stroke.
  • Narrowing or blockages of the arteries that prevent blood flow to the legs and feet causes pain and damage (peripheral artery disease).

Breastfeeding keeps the arteries healthier (Augoulea 2020; Gunderson 2015). Studies have reported that breastfeeding reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke (Eidelman 2012; Jacobson 2018; Nguyen 2019; Peters 2017; Rajaei 2019).

2) Decreasing the risk of metabolic syndrome

The risk of disease of the arteries is increased in certain conditions. These are known as risk factors and include:

  • High blood sugar (diabetes)
  • High blood pressure
  • Being overweight or obese with a large waistline caused by excess fat in the tummy
  • Having certain levels of fats in the blood:
    • Low good [HDL] cholesterol
    • High triglycerides

The likelihood of artery disease is even greater if individuals have more than one risk factor. Taken together, this group of risk factors is called the metabolic syndrome.

Breastfeeding appears to reduce the risk of developing some of these risk factors and of developing metabolic syndrome (Suliga 2020; Tørris 2020). For example, mothers who breastfeed longer are less likely to have high blood pressure (Bonifacino 2018; Park 2018; Qu 2018; Rameez 2019).

Mothers who breastfeed beyond six months have a much lower risk of a certain type of liver disease (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease [NAFLD]) which is thought to be a precursor to metabolic syndrome (Ajmera 2018; Bertrando 2020). NAFLD can also lead to liver and kidney disease.

C) Diabetes

People who have diabetes either can’t produce insulin (type 1 diabetes) or can’t properly use the insulin the pancreas makes (type 2 diabetes). Women may develop diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes).

1) Prevention of diabetes

The risk of type 2 diabetes decreases with increasing breastfeeding (Pinho-Gomes 2021). 

2) Benefits for diabetic mothers  

Breastfeeding may benefit those mothers who have diabetes after delivery. 

Mothers with type 1 diabetes tend to require less insulin if they breastfeed instead of using infant formula (Achong 2018; Ringholm 2019). Breastfeeding does not appear to increase the risk of low sugar levels in mothers with type 1 diabetes between two and four months after delivery, and sugar levels are more stable (Achong 2012; Achong 2018; Ringholm 2019).
 
Breastfeeding by mothers with type 2 diabetes improves their sugar and insulin levels (Gunderson 2012; Nam 2019; Yasuhi 2017).

It appears that about 50% of women who develop gestational diabetes will have type 2 diabetes within five years after delivery. Mothers with gestational diabetes who breastfeed instead of infant formula-feed (Doughty 2020; Pinho-Gomes 2021; Tarrant 2020):

  • Have better sugar control in the months after giving birth.
  • Are less likely to progress to type 2 diabetes.
  • Are less likely to have gestational diabetes with the next child.
  • Reduce the risk of their babies developing obesity or type 2 diabetes later in life.

D) Preventing and reducing overweight and obesity

A mother uses about 700 calories to produce 800 millilitres (27 U.S. fluid ounces) of breast milk. This can promote weight loss after delivery and reduce obesity (Bobrow 2013; Dalrymple 2021; Jarlenski 2014; Neville 2014).

Breastfeeding can limit disease-causing tummy fat and the amount of fat around the heart (Appiah 2021; Cieśla 2021; Snyder 2019). Breastfeeding more intensively and for longer periods appears to increase the amount of healthy muscle tissue which can aid weight loss (Elliott 2018; Kim 2019).

E) Preventing immune system disease

Breastfeeding has been shown to decrease the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (Langer-Gould 2017).

Women with multiple sclerosis who breastfeed exclusively after birth may have a longer period free from relapse than women who do not breastfeed (Ghiasian 2020; Krysko 2019; Langer-Gould 2020; Portaccio 2019; Zuluaga 2019).

Breastfeeding may decrease the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (Chen 2015; Salliot 2020) and thyroid disease (Kim 2020).

F) Preventing other  medical problems

Endometriosis is a condition in which tissue that is normally found lining the uterus, grows in other parts of the tummy. This tissue responds to a woman’s period hormones and will grow and bleed causing pain as women go through their cycles. Endometriosis can also cause scarring, infertility, heavy periods, and bowel and bladder problems. One study (Farland 2017) found that women who breastfed had a lower risk of endometriosis compared with women who never breastfed.

Mothers who breastfeed often find their periods do not return for six or more months. For those with endometriosis, delaying the return of periods can delay further damage. This can protect their fertility if they wish to have more children and also reduce their symptoms until the periods return.

Breastfeeding may delay menopause (Langton 2020). 

Mothers who breastfeed tend to lose less blood right after delivery as breastfeeding helps the uterus contract (Chua 1994; Saxon 2015; Sobhy 2004).

Breastfeeding may help to shrink non-cancerous tumours of the uterus (fibroids) (Delli Carpini 2019).

Mothers with a history of migraines are less likely to have attacks while breastfeeding (Allais 2019).

Breastfeeding does not increase the risk of weak bones (osteoporosis) (Grizzo 2020; Xiao 2020).

G) Reducing stress and promoting emotional  well-being 

Breastfeeding protects mothers from stress. This has been shown by measuring blood pressure, the blood levels of biomarkers of heart and blood vessels and the immune system, and the stress hormone cortisol (Hsiao 2020; Mizuhata 2020; Uvnäs Moberg 2020)Through the release of prolactinoxytocin, and adjustment of other hormone levels, it reduces levels of anxiety, aggression, and depression and improves social functioning and facilitates bonding and motherhood (Gust 2020; Uvnäs Moberg 2020).

1) Breastfeeding mothers may have more time, energy, money, and confidence

Breastfeeding mothers:

  • Don’t return to regular menstruation as quickly as other mothers which protects against having pregnancies too close together (Pimental 2020).
  • May have a lower risk of postpartum depression (Eidelman 2012) and depression in later life (Park 2019).
  • Are more likely to be healthy.
  • Don’t have to spend money on infant formula.
  • Don’t have to spend the time to obtain and prepare infant formula.
  • Feel more confident (Schroeder 2019; Shepherd 2017).

2) Babies are easier to care for

Breastfeeding increases a mother’s ability to recognize and respond to her baby’s needs, possibly resulting in a happier baby (Weaver 2018).

Mothers may have more time to look after themselves and the rest of the family as breastfed babies (Gartner 2005):

3) Breastfeeding provides food security

Mothers and their families benefit when babies can be fed quickly and safely. Breastfeeding provides food security.

This can be important if families have limited resources or there is a sudden change in a family’s situation, such as when travelling, in an environmental or geopolitical emergency, or during a pandemic.

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