Most people learn all about the benefits of breastfeeding while they are pregnant. I know that when I was "with child" I practically heard "breast is best" everywhere I went. And, of course, there are more than a few wonderful benefits to breastfeeding, for both babies and their moms. But how breastfeeding affects your health later in life is worth considering, too.
As you might expect, some of the celebrated benefits of breastfeeding are absolutely supported by science. According to a large review of studies published in the Norwegian journal Acta Paediatrica, breastfeeding your baby may reduce your risk of developing some forms of breast and ovarian cancer. The same review found that breastfeeding can also lower your risk of having Type 2 diabetes. Surprisingly, though, not all of the long-term impacts of breastfeeding are positive. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), breastfeeding can result in bone loss, which is why it's so important for breastfeeding moms to get enough calcium in their diet.
When it comes to a nursing mom's mental health, breastfeeding can have both positive and negative impacts. While some research shows that breastfeeding can be protective against postpartum mood disorders, one study published in the Maternal Child Health Journal shows that it might put moms at risk for postpartum depression (PPD) if nursing doesn't go as planned. That's why it's important to consider the risk factors for PPD, as well as any factors that could put a mom suffering from postpartum depression at risk for developing a chronic mental health condition.
It's clear that breastfeeding can have the long-term affects on moms. It’s important to remember, however, that if you don't want to breastfeed or are unable to, there are definitely other ways to stay healthy, like eating right, limiting alcohol, and getting exercise. Rather than considering breastfeeding a cure-all or pressuring moms who don't want to do it, we should view these potential benefits of breastfeeding as an added bonus if breastfeeding works out. And if it doesn't, that's OK, too.
According to a large review of studies published in the Norwegian journal Acta Paediatrica, breastfeeding your baby may reduce your risk of developing some forms of breast and ovarian cancer by 26 and 37 percent. This may be due to changes in the structure of your breasts that occur during breastfeeding, or having fewer periods and lower estrogen levels during lactation. As reported in the Washington Post, research has found that breastfeeding seems to have a protective effect against more aggressive and deadly forms of breast cancer, which mainly impact young women. Unfortunately, this effect doesn't seem to be as present in African American moms, who are at more risk for these types of breast cancer.
A large review of studies published in the Norwegian journal Acta Paediatrica found that breastfeeding also lowered the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Another study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that this benefit might be especially important for moms who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy, which increases their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life. Affording to the study, this impact can last up to two years after childbirth.
The U.S. Institute of Medicine Committee on Nutritional Status During Pregnancy and Lactation recommends that lactating women eat a variety of foods rich in calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6, and folate, both to ensure that their milk has everything baby needs and that they get adequate nutrition while breastfeeding. However, they also recommend that moms continue to focus on getting enough of these nutrients after they stop breastfeeding, too, because your body will pull from it's stores to make breast milk, and that may result in deficiencies.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women can experience three to five percent bone loss during lactation. This is due to depletion of calcium stores and lower levels of estrogen in people who are breastfeeding. The good news is that these impacts rarely persist in the long term. It can take up to six months to get back to healthy levels after weaning, though, so it's super important to get enough calcium while you are breastfeeding, and even after you stop, to make sure your bones stay strong.
The science is mixed on how breastfeeding can impact your mental health in the postpartum period and beyond. While a large study published in the journal Maternal and Child Health found that women who planned to and were able to breastfeed their babies had the lowest risk of postpartum depression (PPD), women whose breastfeeding didn't go as planned had the highest risk of PPD. According to Katherine Stone, founder of Postpartum Progress, weaning from breastfeeding may also trigger depression in some moms.
This could be important in the long term. As a review in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry found that for as many as 38 percent of women, postpartum depression doesn't go away once you are no longer a new mom, and might put you at risk for chronic depression and other mental health conditions.
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