A mother breastfeeding her child supplies optimum nutrition for babies, boosts childhood immunity, and strengthens the bond between parent and child. But did you know that a mother breastfeeding also offers surprising health benefits for mothers? Indeed, some studies even suggest that a mother breastfeeding can reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in women who choose to have children.
BREASTFEEDING: A CRITICAL COMPONENT OF MATERNAL HEALTH
The benefits that a mother breastfeeding provides for babies are very well-documented. In addition to providing the perfect balance of nutrients that your baby needs to survive and thrive, breast milk contains hormones and antibodies that naturally strengthen an infant’s developing immune system. The protective effect of breast milk is shown to last even after a child stops breastfeeding, and contributes to a number of short and long-term pediatric health benefits. Breastfed babies experience a reduced incidence of gastrointestinal issues, respiratory infections, ear infections, type 2 diabetes, childhood obesity, and some childhood cancers (UpToDate ).
But while much attention is devoted to the health of newborn children, the health of their mothers is more often ignored. Indeed, the U.S. boasts one of the most embarrassing postpartum maternal mortality rates in the developed world: 15-30 maternal deaths for 100,000 live births 2015 and rising, a trend that runs contrary to the declining rates observed in Europe, Australia, and Canada (The Lancet).
If we are to create a culture that values maternal health, we must promote and foster practices that contribute positively to it. A Mother breastfeeding is one of those practices, providing a number of short and long-term benefits that begin at birth and continue for the duration of a mother’s life.
THE BENEFITS OF A MOTHER BREASTFEEDING
Shortly after birth, the act of a mother breastfeeding stimulates the production of oxytocin: a hormone produced by the mother’s pituitary gland that prevents hemorrhaging and promotes uterine healing. Together with prolactin (another neuropeptide associated with breastfeeding), oxytocin may also have a positive impact on the mental health of new mothers by reducing maternal stress levels and promoting parent-child bonding. (UpToDate .)
Mothers who nurse may also have a slight edge in losing “baby weight” after pregnancy, thanks to the metabolic boost that breastfeeding appears to provide. And because breastfeeding helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels, nursing mothers are demonstrated to have a lower risk for developing diabetes and heart disease than their formula-feeding counterparts (La Leche League International).
HOW DOES A MOTHER BREASTFEEDING PREVENT CANCER?
Studies estimate a 4.3 percent drop in a woman’s relative risk of developing breast cancer for every 12 months she nurses (UpToDate ). The benefit continues to accrue over multiple pregnancies and appears to have a positive impact on ovarian cancer, as well: one study found that women who breastfeed multiple children for a combined 31 months or more could see a 91% reduction in their risk for ovarian cancer versus women who breastfeed for less than 10 months (MD Anderson Cancer Center).
Doctors surmise a variety of factors may contribute to this phenomenon.
We know that nursing stimulates the production of certain beneficial hormones and neuropeptides in a mother’s body. These hormones also postpone the return of ovulation and menstruation after she gives birth, thus reducing the likelihood of an immediate, consecutive pregnancy. This natural “spacing” mechanism allows a mother more time to heal between pregnancies while encouraging her to devote more time and attention to each of her newborn children (La Leche League International). A delay in ovulation may also reduce a woman’s exposure to estrogen, which can reduce her overall risk for developing breast and ovarian cancers (MD Anderson Cancer Center). Oral contraceptives that delay ovulation are associated with similar anti-cancer benefits.
Breastfeeding also contributes to cell shedding and turnover within the breast tissue, which may help remove damaged cells before they can develop into cancer (MD Anderson Cancer Center).
PROMOTING BREASTFEEDING AWARENESS
Mothers who nurse for at least 6 months see the greatest health benefits for both themselves and their children, but a number of social and societal factors may deter some women from breastfeeding. Limited parental leave from work, lack of access to private nursing facilities in public spaces, and a lack of support from friends and family may influence a woman’s decision to stop breastfeeding early or avoid it altogether.
If a friend or a loved one is breastfeeding, support her decision in any way you can. Let her know that you think breastfeeding is important, and that she is always welcome to nurse her child in your home. If you are a boss or employer, create company policies that promote a woman’s ability to breastfeed in the workplace and make sure that nursing mothers in your organization have a private space to nurse if they choose to do so. You may also give books or classes about breastfeeding as a gift to expectant parents (AICR).
A culture that promotes breastfeeding is one that values the health of women. Breastfeeding promotes postpartum healing, supports mental health, and may even grant nursing mothers longterm protection against some forms of cancer. In choosing breast over bottle, new mothers make a lasting investment in their own health and the health of their families. After all: a healthy, happy mom is one of the best gifts your child can receive.
About the Author:
Dr. Robert Lum, Founder and Head Oncologist at Oncologic Advisors, has over twenty years of radiation oncology experience. He graduated, with honors, magna cum laude with a degree in molecular biology from University of California, Berkeley, attended Case Western Reserve University medical school, and completed his residency at University of California, Irvine and City of Hope in Los Angeles in Radiation Oncology. He has been President of the Christian Medical and Dental Society (Ventura County), President of the Ventura County Medical Society, District Representative to the California Medical Association, and on the Professional Advisors Board of Directors for Cancer Support Community of the San Fernando Valley, Ventura, and Santa Barbara in California. Over the years, he has advised many patients throughout the treatment of their cancer. Treating the whole person, not just the disease, is the philosophy Dr. Lum has embraced over his years of practice.
UpToDate – Infant benefits of breastfeeding. Richard J. Schanler, MD. Topic Last Updated: 09 December 2016.
The Lancet – Global, regional, and national levels of maternal mortality, 1990-2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015. GBD 2015 Maternal Mortality Collaborators. Vol. 338. 08 October 2016.
UpToDate  – Maternal and economic benefits of breastfeeding. Richard J Schanler, MD. Topic Last Updated: 07 December 2016.
La Leche League International – A Well-Kept Secret: Breastfeeding’s Benefits to Mothers. From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 4, p. 124-127. Alicia Dermer, MD, IBCLC. July – August 2001.
UpToDate  – Factors that modify breast cancer risk in women. Wendy Y Chen, MD, MPH. Topic Last Updated: 02 August 2017.
MD Anderson Cancer Center – Breastfeeding Lowers Your Breast Cancer Risk. Brittany Cordeiro. October 2014.
AICR American Institute for Cancer Research – Experts: Breastfeeding Protects Moms from Breast Cancer. Mya Nelson. 10 May 2012.