Babies whose moms opt to breastfeed them reap the benefits: bolstered immune systems; fewer cases of asthma, ear infections, and allergies; a better chance of avoiding sudden infant death syndrome and obesity — the list goes on. And a newly published study found that breastfeeding may have a huge health benefit for moms, too. We already know that doing so can lower women's risk developing some cancers, help with post-delivery healing, and more — and the study showed that breastfeeding pretty significantly decreased a moms's risk of developing heart disease and having a stroke as well.
The study was observational, meaning that the nearly 290,000 women in China who were involved decided for themselves whether to breastfeed their babies. But the findings were striking nonetheless. Researchers from the University of Oxford, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking University were able to account for factors like obesity, smoking, and diabetes in determining that women who breastfed reduced their risk of heart disease by 9 percent, and their risk of stroke by 8 percent, according to U.S News & World Report. The benefits were even more dramatic for women who breastfed for two years or longer: Their likelihood of heart disease plummeted 18 percent, and their stroke risk by 17 percent.
The women in the study shared with the researchers information about how many children they had, whether they breastfed, and how long they breastfed, TIME reported. In turn, these researchers kept tabs on their health for almost 10 years, keeping an eye out for heart issues. They published the results of that labor in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Still, experts will need to conduct more research in order to determine the link between breastfeeding, heart disease, and strokes, University of Oxford research fellow in epidemiology Sanne Peters told the magazine.
But current knowledge suggests that breastfeeding helps women to lose fat that's accumulated and redistributed during pregnancy. If they don't get rid of the resulting metabolic reserve, risk factors for heart disease, such as atherosclerosis, could proliferate.
Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, believes that the fact that the women in the study decided for themselves to breastfeed or not affected the ultimate conclusions. Women with higher BMIs, he told USA Today, tend to breastfeed at a lower rate and for shorter periods of time. In short, women who are healthier in general are the ones who embrace breastfeeding more readily, he explained:
What we do know is that anxiety, depression, being overweight and having low levels of the hormone oxytocin all elevate risk of cardiovascular disease. And what we generally see is that women who practice a healthier lifestyle tend to breastfeed more often, while those who are not as healthy don't seem to adopt the practice.
Still, the study does not conclude that not breastfeeding will cause a woman to develop heart problems, TIME reported. There any many reasons — from physical limitations to a scarcity of time off work – that women don’t breastfeed their babies. Even though breastfeeding is beneficial for many reasons, those who don’t do it should not feel guilty.