There is no lack of evidence demonstrating the protective effects that breastfeeding has on both mothers and their babies. A new 30-year study shows that breastfeeding for at least six months cuts a mother’s risk of developing Type II diabetes in half.
The maternal benefits of breastfeeding are extensive, ranging from lowering the risk of ovarian and breast cancer to decreasing the odds of depression. Additionally, several studies have shown that the longer a mother breastfeeds, the better it is for Mom and Baby.
Mothers who breastfeed now have another reason to continue nursing as long as possible. New research from Kaiser Permanente has demonstrated that longer durations of breastfeeding are associated with a significantly lower risk of developing diabetes.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, is one of the longest and most extensive studies examining the topic of lactation duration and progression to diabetes. Researchers followed 1,238 women enrolled in a longitudinal study entitled Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA).
The study participants were enrolled 30 years ago and consist of roughly the same number of African American and Caucasian women. At the time of enrollment, none of the participants had been diagnosed with diabetes. Each woman had at least one live birth following enrollment and was routinely screened for diabetes. Researchers were able to adjust for various other factors that could influence a woman’s risk for diabetes including weight, diet, physical activity, income, education, family history, and health status.
“Unlike previous studies of breastfeeding, which relied on self-reporting of diabetes onset and began to follow older women later in life, we were able to follow women specifically during the childbearing period and screen them regularly for diabetes before and after pregnancies,” said lead author Erica P. Gunderson, PhD, MS, MPH, senior research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research.
While 418 mothers breastfed their infants for less than six months, another 268 women nursed for six to 12 months. 230 mothers, or 19 percent, breastfed their babies for a year or more. The study did not address whether or not the infants were exclusively breastfed.
By the end of the study, 182 women had developed type 2 diabetes. The women who breastfed for at least six months had a 47 percent reduction in their risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those women who had never breastfed. Further, those who had breastfed for less than six months still experienced a 25 percent reduction in risk.
“We found a very strong association between breastfeeding duration and lower risk of developing diabetes, even after accounting for all possible confounding risk factors,” lead author Erica Gunderson, PhD, MS, MPH said in a press release.
While the study did not delve into the reasons behind the protective nature of breastmilk, the authors did point to several possible biological mechanisms. For example, the hormonal influences of breastfeeding naturally lower a woman’s blood sugar levels, decreasing the need for insulin production by the pancreas.
“We have known for a long time that breastfeeding has many benefits both for mothers and babies. However, previous evidence showed only weak effects on chronic disease in women,” Dr. Tracy Flanagan, director of women’s health for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said in a statement.
“This is yet another reason that doctors, nurses and hospitals — as well as policymakers — should support women and their families to breastfeed as long as possible,” Flanagan said.
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