Breastfeeding is extremely beneficial for both: mother and baby. Intuitively we always knew that it is the best form of nutrition for growing babies. As our ongoing observations and research continue, we gather more and more evidence that it is indeed true.
The most commonly cited positive effects of breastfeeding on the mother’s health are: decreased incidence of postpartum hemorrhage, loss of weight, lower incidence of depression, reduction in stress level, natural contraception, decreased risk of cardiovascular disorders, decreased risk of some cancers, and lower risk of diabetes.
A decrease in the severity of postpartum hemorrhage.
Postpartum hemorrhage is defined as excessive bleeding after the birth of the baby. It may affect about 5% of women. Baby during a breastfeeding session stimulates the mother’s breasts and nipples, and that leads to increased excretion of oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a hormone that can be secreted by the hypothalamus (a gland in the brain) and causes uterine contractions and more rapid involution of the uterus, thus decrease of blood loss post-delivery.
In fact, in areas of the world where oxytocin is not available as a medication, doctors and health organizations recommend nipple stimulation and breastfeeding as a measure to decrease postpartum hemorrhage.
Virtually all mothers gain weight during their healthy pregnancy. For many mothers losing all gained weight or at least some of it is a very important goal. It is estimated that breastfeeding your baby requires an additional 600 extra calories per day, equivalent to 1-2 hours on treadmill depending on speed and your endurance.
Studies of the ultimate effects of breastfeeding on postpartum weight loss differ regarding final results, but most would agree that it does contribute to at least some weight loss. Your weight loss will also depend on other factors such as diet, initial weight, race and country of origin, physical activities, diabetes, and other health problems that you may have.
Prevention or modification of Postpartum Blues (Postpartum Depression).
It has been found that the incidence of postpartum depression among mothers who breastfeed is lower. We do not know how baby blues is related to breastfeeding and if there is a connection between those two. It is possible that depressed mothers are less likely to breastfeed.
Some hypothesize that perhaps the link is through an endocrine (hormonal) pathways. We do know that oxytocin released during breastfeeding may contribute to feeling loved and decreases maternal anxiety.
Reduction of stress levels in mothers.
Breastfeeding mothers spend a significant amount of time with their babies skin to skin. During that time, they ensure that the baby is comfortable, healthy, and loved. That, in turn, leads to a strong bond with their babies and decreased anxiety in mothers.
On a hormonal level, decreased levels of corticosteroid hormones and increased levels of oxytocin in breastfeeding mothers influence those positive maternal moods and behavioral changes.
Hormonal changes taking place in breastfeeding women delay the resumption of regular ovarian cycles and the return of fertility.
In developing countries where contraceptive drugs are not available or expensive, it is widely known that exclusive breastfeeding delays subsequent pregnancy. Researchers cite data indicating that this natural form of contraception may result in the delivery of the subsequent baby on average two years after the previous one.
Decreased risks of cardiovascular diseases.
The most extensive study to date on the effects of breastfeeding on cardiovascular risks gathered data from 139,000 postmenopausal women in the USA. It was conducted and reported by the Women’s Health Initiative (Ref. 1).
The research focused, among other things, on dose-response relationships between the cumulative number of months of breastfeeding and postmenopausal risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.
Lactation history was obtained from all the women enrolled in the study. The study was retrospective, and the age of participants was between 50-79 years. Women who had at least one child and breastfed for at least one month were asked about the total number of months they breastfed their all children.
Five cardiovascular risk factors were measured at the beginning of the study and then over the subsequent eight years of observation and follow up:
- incidence of cardiovascular disease
After adjusting for many different variables authors concluded that: comparing previously pregnant women who did not breastfeed to those who did breastfed for more than 12 months in their lifetime; “42.1% versus 38.6% would have hypertensions, 5.3% versus 4.3% would have diabetes, 14.8% versus 12.3% would have hyperlipidemia and 9.9% versus 9.1% would have developed cardiovascular disease” (Ref. 1).
For non-statisticians, those outcomes may seem to be not very significant, so I want to translate them into more understandable numbers. The results showed that women who breastfed for a total of at least 12 months in their lifetime had a 10%-20% lesser risk of developing hypertension, diabetes, abnormal lipid profile, and cardiovascular disease.
Decreased risk of developing cancer.
In the USA, Breast cancer will affect approximately 1 out of 8 women, and about 1.3% of women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Both diseases are difficult to treat and still may have guarded prognosis if diagnosed at later stages.
According to research studies, for women who breastfed for a total of 12 months or more, the risk of breast and ovarian cancers decreased by 28%. Worldwide epidemiological studies showed that each year of breastfeeding resulted in a decrease of risk for breast cancer by 4.3%
The exact mechanism connecting breastfeeding to a lower risk of cancer is unknown. It is hypothesized, though, that lack of ovulation may have protective effects since ovarian and breast cancers may be regulated to a certain degree by female hormones.
Decreased risk for the Adult type of Diabetes (Type 2 Diabetes).
Women without a history of gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) have reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 4%-12% for every 12 months of breastfeeding in their life.
Unfortunately, that risk reduction does not apply to women with gestational diabetes.
Effects on bone density.
As an exception, this paragraph is not about the positive impact of breastfeeding on women’s health. I wanted to discuss this one particular issue due to concerns about the effects of breastfeeding on maternal bone health.
Breastfeeding mothers lose about 5% of their bone density. However, remineralization occurs during the weaning period, and physiologic mechanisms such as decreased urinary excretion of calcium have protective effects on maternal bones.
Fortunately, research shows that breastfeeding is not associated with long term adverse effects on mineral bone density of the women. Furthermore, there is no connection between the duration of breastfeeding and the risk for osteoporotic fractures.
Positive financial impacts on the whole family.
The economic implications of breastfeeding can be measured by estimating savings on formula purchases, savings on health expenses due to better health of the baby and the mother, and savings on the loss of income if we do not take time off from work.
The most apparent financial benefit is savings on formula. It is estimated that parents spend approximately $800-$1400 a year for each baby. Obviously, if the family buys fancy bottles, warmers, and most modern formulas, this cost may be much higher.
Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ) estimated that if 90% of US mothers breastfed exclusively for six months, we would save $13 billion per year as a society – mainly in health care costs.
Breastfeeding has many benefits, not only for children but also for mothers. Importantly, breastfeeding affects positively many health outcomes in mothers, particularly decreases risks of developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and certain cancers.
Also, breastfeeding has a positive economic impact on the family and our society. As medical professionals, employers, and society, we need to do everything that we can to support breastfeeding mothers.
If you would like to learn what are the benefits of breastfeeding for the baby, read my other article here.
This article is only for general information purposes. It should not be viewed as any medical advice. There is a small chance that information here may be inaccurate. You should always discuss all health-related matters with your doctor before making any decisions that may affect your health or health of your family members.
- Eleanor Bimla Schwarz: Duration of Lactation and Risk Factors for Maternal Cardiovascular Disease: Obstet Gynecol. 2009 May; 113(5): 974–982.