The wonders of breastfeeding for babies have been well-documented, but there may be more to the practice than benefits for the little ones.
A new study showed that breastfeeding may also reduce a mother’s risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke later in life.
According to previous studies, the short-term benefits of breastfeeding for mothers include weight loss as well as lower cholesterol and blood pressure after pregnancy. The long-term gains on cardiovascular wellness, however, remained mostly unclear.
Now, a new study from the University of Oxford, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, and Peking University suggested two: reduced risks of heart attack and stroke.
The observational study analyzed data from 289,573 Chinese women, who averaged at age 51, and discovered that those who breastfed their babies were nearly 10 percent less likely to develop heart attack and stroke compared to those who never did. An even lower risk of 17 to 18 percent was seen in mothers who breastfed for at least two years.
Every additional six months of breastfeeding, too, was linked with a 4 percent lower risk of heart attack and 3 percent lower risk of stroke.
"Although we cannot establish the causal effects, the health benefits to the mother from breastfeeding may be explained by a faster ‘reset’ of the mother's metabolism after pregnancy,” said study author Dr. Sanne Peters in a statement.
According to Peters, pregnancy alters the female metabolism significantly as she stores fat to get the energy needed for the baby’s growth and for breastfeeding. Breastfeeding could get rid of the stored fat more quickly, the research fellow explained.
Breastfeeding moms, too, may be more likely to engage in other positive health behaviors that slash their heart disease risk.
The Buzz About Breastfeeding
Compared to mothers in China, mothers in the United States breastfeed for a much shorter period of time. In the study, 97 percent breastfed each baby for 12 months on average, while only 30 percent of U.S. mothers did in 2016.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends mothers to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life. The American Heart Association, on the other hand, suggests the practice for 12 months if possible.
Lori Blauwet, director of the Mayo Clinic’s cardio-ob clinic, said that very few studies delve on the effects of breastfeeding on mothers. She noted another study that saw a similar link between breastfeeding and heart health, but only among mothers who did it for two years or more.
"This is really a call for us to do further research in this area, to see if there really are long term beneficial effects,” she said, warning that this shouldn’t be taken to mean that non-breastfeeding moms are hurting their health.
American mothers, she cited, may be working or having underlying health issues that could be getting in the way of breastfeeding longer.
“I want to emphasize women shouldn’t be made to feel guilty if they do not breastfeed because there could be reasons why they can’t,” she said.
The findings were detailed in the Journal of the American Heart Association.