The benefits of breastfeeding for infants has been studied extensively — with breastfeeding for six months exclusively and one year total widely understood as an essential child health issue — but a new study published in Maternal & Child Nutrition online says that breastfeeding impacts a mother’s health even more than previously thought.
The study modeled two groups using existing research and government data: an “optimal” group which breastfed as recommended, and a group that breastfed at current US rates, which are lower than the recommended guidelines.
The research team projected the rates and costs of diseases that breastfeeding has been known to reduce in both mothers and children, along with the rates and costs of early deaths from those diseases, finding that nearly 80 percent of the premature death and medical costs were maternal.
According to the report, breastfeeding as recommended, “could protect babies and their moms from premature death and serious diseases and save the U.S. more than $4.3 billion in health care and related costs.”
For breastfeeding mothers that protection means lowered risks of breast cancer, pre-menopausal ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension and heart attacks. Breastfeeding for longer than the recommended time is also associated with even lower risks of these life-threatening diseases.
“Breastfeeding has long been framed as a child health issue, however it is clearly a women’s health issue as well,” said study co-author Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, professor of medicine at UC Davis Health System.
Lead author Dr. Melissa Bartick, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliances, reported, “Breastfeeding is far more beneficial in preventing disease and reducing costs than previously estimated.”
The authors of the study also emphasized the need for providing support for women, who want to breastfeed their babies starting at birth, with programs in hospitals that will help new moms learn to breastfeed as well as investing in longer paid family leave, and providing necessary accommodations for working mothers such as places to pump breastmilk and even on-site childcare.
“Currently, 22 percent of employed mothers return to work within 10 days of birth,” according to Dr. Alison Stuebe, distinguished scholar of infant and young child feeding at the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute and associate professor of obstetrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Stuebe noted to CafeMom that it is “very, very difficult to breastfeed when mother and baby are separated within days of birth.”
“We know that the overwhelming majority of US moms want to breastfeed. In 2013, four out of five moms breastfed their babies. Women know that breastfeeding is important for their health, and the health of their children. What we need is the political will to remove obstacles and enable women to meet their own goals.”