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Breastfeeding Benefits Moms, Too

Many moms-to-be are barraged with information touting the benefits of breastfeeding. From a boosted immune system, higher IQ and lower incidence of developing obesity and diabetes, much of the literature focuses on the baby. But a growing number of studies show that mothers are also protected by the practice, particularly when it comes to preventing a potentially deadly disease.

A growing body of research suggests a potential link between lactation and a lower incidence of developing certain breast cancers.

“This is an emerging area of research,” says Jan Gutweiler, Lactation Program Coordinator at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “Studies showing that breastfeeding lowers breast cancer risk have found that the protection builds up over time.”

In a pooled analysis of data from 47 studies, mothers who breastfed for a lifetime total – combined duration of breastfeeding for all children – of one year were slightly less likely to get breast cancer than those who never breastfed. But, mothers who breastfed for a lifetime total of two years got about twice the benefit, and mothers who breastfed for a lifetime total of more than two years got even more protection.

There are a number of different theories involving the connection between breastfeeding and breast cancer. Hormone balances are different during lactation, resulting in fewer menstrual cycles and lower estrogen levels. Estrogen is known to fuel 80 percent of all breast cancers. Breastfeeding may also cause changes to breast cells, making them more resistant to mutating into cancer cells.

High risk women may reap some of the biggest benefits by breastfeeding their babies.

A 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine reported that females with a family history of breast cancer were 59 percent less likely to develop breast cancer themselves if they breastfed their children. Other beneficiaries may also include women who wait to give birth until after age 35, which, today, means one in five females.

“Those who delay having a child until later in adulthood tend to be at a higher risk of developing breast cancer,” Gutweiler explains. “But a National Institutes of Health study found that if they breastfeed, it cancels out the risk. So that’s good news for all women, whether you’re having your baby at 25 or 45.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an infant be breastfed exclusively for the first six months after birth. Three quarters of new moms start out breastfeeding, but how long they stick with it varies. So the question becomes, how long do moms have to breastfeed in order to fully benefit? The jury is still out, according to Gutweiler.

“We know the longer you breastfeed, the better off you and your baby are,” she says. “But we really don’t know exactly what the outward limit of it is or if there’s a maximum amount of time you should breastfeed . This is something that is still being studied.”

According to the 2014 Breastfeeding Report Card, nearly 80 percent of infants in the United States were breastfed for some amount of time. That number decreases to just below 50 percent at six months and around 25 percent at 12 months. Although breastfeeding rates have increased over the past several years, Healthy People 2020 goals include increasing the rate of continued breastfeeding as well as improving the rate of exclusive breastfeeding. There’s good reason for these goals that go beyond breast cancer protection.

Australian researchers found that women who breastfed for more than 13 months were 63 percent less likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who breastfed for less than seven months. And, women who breastfed multiple children for a total of 31 months or more could reduce their ovarian cancer risk by as much as 91 percent compared to women who breastfed for less than 10 months.

A number of long-term studies are on the horizon, such as the Nurses’ Health Study 3, that will examine the link between breastfeeding and breast cancer.

Gutweiler says education must follow suit.

“Moms tend to sacrifice themselves and focus on the welfare of the baby,” she explains. “Education is key. Even before they’re pregnant, we need to teach them how breastfeeding can benefit their health.”

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.