From the time the urine dries on that positive pregnancy test, expectant parents will begin to field advice from well, everyone. "Sleep now while you still can," well-meaning strangers will tell you at the grocery store. "Make sure to get your baby on a sleep schedule right away," experienced mom-friends will say. And don't forget the parenting books, which will inevitably list off all of the delicious foods you should avoid during pregnancy. But the one bit of advice parents-to-be will see over and over again — in books, parenting websites, and from doctors — is this: "Breast is best." Nutritionally speaking, it is the optimal way to feed a human child; plus, breast milk offers valuable protection for a baby's immune system, thanks to the antibodies received from mom. It's no secret that there are plenty of health benefits for mothers who breastfeed, too — like reduced risk of ovarian cancer, for example. And apparently, breastfeeding also reduces your risk of heart disease, new research has found.
Science Daily reported this new research will be presented on March 10 at the American College of Cardiology's 67th Annual Scientific Session. For the study, a total of 678 pregnant women across the state of Michigan were enrolled between 1998 and 2004. Follow-up assessments were then performed 11 years later (on average) — during which researchers looked at a number of variables: Blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, along with the the diameter and thickness of the carotid artery. Additionally, the women were asked how long they breastfed after each pregnancy. What researchers discovered seems like pretty convincing evidence of the effects of breastfeeding on a woman's heart health.
Once researchers adjusted for factors that might skew the results, here's what they found: Women who had normal blood pressure during pregnancy and who breastfed for at least six months had markedly higher levels of "good" cholesterol (HDL), healthier carotid artery thickness, and lower triglycerides when compared to the women who had never breastfed. These all happen to be indicators of good heart health, as reported by ABC News. (Power to the boob!)
So what explains this heart-health benefit of breastfeeding? Although it's hard to say for sure, the study's researchers attributed it to the fact that breastfeeding stimulates the release of oxytocin, which could contribute to lowering blood pressure, the Daily Mail reported. It's important to note that this study's findings have yet to be peer-reviewed and published in a medical journal, as Science Daily pointed out. So there's still some more work that needs to be done to make sure that there aren't other factors influencing the heart health of the study's participants.
Of course, this isn't the first time a study has suggested a link between breastfeeding and lowered risk of heart disease. As USA Today reported in June 2017, a study of 289,573 women in China revealed that those who breastfed were nearly 10-percent less likely to develop heart disease and stroke than women who never breastfed. And for women who breastfed for two or more years? There was an even lower risk.
So here's what it all boils down to: If you have normal blood pressure during pregnancy, you might be able to reduce your risk of heart disease if you breastfeed for a minimum of six months after each birth. Not bad, right?
Look, it's hard to argue that breastfeeding offers clear health benefits for both mom and baby. Still, parents should take the "breast is best" manta with a grain of salt. Because sometimes — no matter how much a woman wants and tries to breastfeed — it just doesn't work out. And other times, situational factors or personal preferences might make breastfeeding unfeasible. And that's OK, too.
Studies like this one won't necessarily convince women to breastfeed. But at least parents can make a better-informed decision when it comes to deciding whether "breast is best" for their family.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.