Researchers have been raving for decades about the benefits of breastfeeding for newborn babies and their mothers. Breast milk is known to boost babies' immune systems, aid development, and even reduce the risk of obesity later in life. And some new research now suggests that nursing infants could also be beneficial for a specific factor regarding the mother's health as well. Indeed, results from a new study support the idea that breastfeeding may actually boost mothers’ heart health.
According to findings presented at the European Society of Endocrinology’s annual meeting, women who breastfed their babies are less likely to develop heart disease later in life. The study also suggests that women who breastfed for longer periods of time had increased protective effects on their heart health. In other words, the longer a woman breastfeeds, the lower her risk of getting heart disease.
The study, conducted by Irene Lambrinoudaki, a professor from the University of Athens along with additional colleagues, examined the heart and blood vessel health in postmenopausal women and compared it to their history of breastfeeding. However, the underlying causes of the protective effect of breastfeeding on the heart are still unknown, as Lambrinoudaki explained in a press release of the findings.
“If we can show causality for the protective effect, women will have one more reason to nurse their infants, beyond the already documented benefits of breastfeeding for short- and long term health of both them and their children,” Lambrinoudaki said in the press release.
In the past, breastfeeding has also been shown to reduce the risk of postpartum depression and the risk of certain cancers, including ovarian and breast cancer, according to the University of Texas Cancer Center. Higher levels of the hormone prolactin in breastfeeding mothers also help them maintain a healthy body weight, regulate their blood sugar, and reduce the risk of diabetes.
For babies, breastfeeding comes with a wide variety of added benefits. Not only does breast milk provide ideal nutrition and even fluctuate in its composition according to the baby’s needs, but it also contains antibodies that help newborns fight off sickness by forming a protective layer of antibodies in the baby’s nose, throat, and digestive system. Breastfeeding may also reduce the risk of ear infections by 50 percent, reduce the risk of serious colds and ear or throat infections by 63 percent, and reduce the risk of gut infections by 64 percent.
Some studies also suggest that there may be a difference in brain development for babies who were breastfed versus formula-fed babies. Studies indicate that nursed babies have higher intelligence scores and are less likely to develop behavioral and learning problems as they grow, likely due to the physical intimacy, touch and eye contact associated with breastfeeding.
A more recent WHO study even suggests that breastfeeding could even prevent childhood obesity, an illness that affects nearly 1 in 5 school age children in the United States, according to the CDC. Since the 1970s, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled.
At the same time, numbers from the CDC show that most mothers in the United States want to breastfeed, but that less than half of infants are breastfed exclusively for three months. Only about a quarter of infants in the U.S. were exclusively breastfed until six months.
For women who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed, which can occur for a variety of reasons including low breast milk supply, having an infectious disease, and other medical conditions, alternatives do exist. Natural alternatives including breast milk banks could also be a viable option for new mothers looking to naturally nurse their babies. But at the end of the day, it's important to remember that as long as the little one is fed, you're doing a job well done.
Still, research on breastfeeding like these new findings further prove just how incredible the female body is.