Even a brief breastfeeding stint reduced the risk of a highly aggressive breast cancer by up to 20 percent.
The ancient, mystic power of breastfeeding has been avidly researched and scientists have learned that the easily digestible bosom milk’s precise cocktail of vitamins, protein, and fat is widely thought to boost IQ. Scientists say it also decreases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), diabetes, obesity, heart disease, asthma, and allergies; it arms baby’s immune system for a lifetime of battles. It is nature’s vaccine.
Not everyone believes breast milk is so magical. In fact, since the 1950s, the breast versus the bottle debate has been hot to the touch. While a slew of research supports breastfeeding’s benefits to babies, there are also studies that try to debunk the overall claim other contributing factors (such as the health, wealth, and education level of the mother) is to thank for future health and intelligence, instead of breast milk.
Either way, let’s put the babies aside for now, since new findings from the latest breastfeeding study is not about them at all. It’s about the mothers.
Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, who calls for paid maternity leave, cites earlier research suggesting that if nearly every mother in the U.S. breastfed, it could prevent an estimated 5,000 breast cancer diagnoses every year, and almost 14,000 heart attacks would never come to pass.
As early as October 2015, a publication of Annals of Oncology, a study found that breastfeeding could help prevent breast cancer. Another study showed that the practice helps women who developed gestational diabetes during pregnancy avoid becoming long term diabetics.
This report on nursing’s effect on breast cancer analyzed studies of some 40,000 cancer cases, globally. It found that even a brief breastfeeding stint reduced the risk of a highly aggressive breast cancer by up to 20 percent. These elusive tumors, difficult to treat, are more common in Black and younger women.
“The breast gland is immature and unable to do its job—which is to make milk—until it goes through the bat mitzvah of a full term pregnancy,” says the paper’s principal author, Dr. Marisa Weiss.
“Breastfeeding forces the breasts to finally grow up and get a job, and make milk, and show up for work every day and every night, and stop fooling around.”
Her assertion: pregnancy and lactation are crucial steps in the life span of breasts, and breastfeeding creates changes in milk duct cells, making breasts more impervious to cancer.
Perhaps that’s why some scientists call lactation pregnancy’s fourth trimester, marking the true end to the reproductive cycle. Breastfeeding is not just about the breast itself:lactation improves glucose and lipid metabolism, returning a woman’s body to a long life of metabolic and cardiac health.
Before this study, doctors weren’t really sure whether breastfeeding reduced the development of long-term diabetes, so for two years, researchers monitored 1,010 white, black, Asian, and Latina women who had developed gestational diabetes during pregnancy. The breastfeeders cut their risk by half, and the longer they breastfed, the more they lowered this risk. More than 10 months of breastfeeding cut their risk of diabetes by almost 60 percent.
To add to what these studies suggest, below are seven other medically established reasons from parenting go-to Dr. William Sears on why breastfeeding is great for some women.
- Swifter recovery from childbirth. Oxytocin, a pleasure hormone released during breastfeeding, helps to shrink the uterus to its regular size more quickly, reducing postpartum bleeding.
- Encourages postpartum weight loss. Every ounce of breast milk contains 20 calories. Feed the baby 20 ounces a day and you’ve just incinerated 400 calories without moving a muscle.
- Reduced risk of uterine and ovarian cancers. Estrogen levels are lower during lactation, and the less estrogen present to stimulate the uterus lining, the less risk of the tissue turning cancerous.
- Reduced risk of osteoporosis. Women that don’t breastfeed have a four times greater chance of developing osteoporosis, and they are more likely to get hip fractures in their postmenopausal years.
- Reduced risk of other ailments. This includes rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
- Promotes child spacing. Diligent breast-feeding provides a natural form of contraception as it delays ovulation, and another pregnancy. (Just don’t rely completely on breastfeeding—it isn’t fail-safe!)
- Good for emotional health. Studies show that breastfeeding moms show less postpartum anxiety and depression.
Note that every woman’s pregnancy and postpartum experience differs, so not every proposed benefit below will apply to everyone.
Sources: New York Times, The Atlantic, Dr. Sears website