When it comes to breastfeeding, we often hear that “breast is best” for babies — but we don’t always hear that it's good for moms too. Emerging research suggests breastfeeding can lower the risks of a variety of health issues. Regardless if these are concerns for right after giving birth or much later on in life, knowing all the ways breastfeeding can help your health will help you decide how you want to nurse your baby. Here’s a quick recap of seven benefits mothers can experience from breastfeeding:
When a mother breastfeeds, her body releases oxytocin — the "feel good" hormone. It promotes a relaxed state of mind, a feeling of well-being and relaxation. We experience oxytocin when in the company of good friends, when we’re having sex and also when we're nursing.
The release of oxytocin also promotes bonding. By experiencing the oxytocin release while breastfeeding, it could potentially help new moms cope with the stresses of new parenthood, in addition to helping them bond with their baby.
A 2010 study in the Journal of Perinatology suggests that for every 12 months a woman breastfed, her risk of breast cancer dropped 4.3 percent. Another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that women who breastfed reduced their risk of ovarian cancer by nearly two-thirds. The longer mothers breastfed, the great protection they had against both illnesses.
A 2010 study found that women who breastfeed are half as likely to develop type II diabetes as women who do not. Scientists aren’t certain what the mechanism behind this statistical difference is, but many speculate that it has to do with the fat stores women accumulate during pregnancy, and later loose while nursing.
When oxytocin is released during breastfeeding, the hormone causes a woman’s uterus to contract. It’s important for the uterus to contract following a baby’s birth because it closes off the open capillaries that are exposed after the placenta is released; these contractions are the mechanism that helps women prevent postpartum hemorrhaging. The more the uterus contracts following the birth, the better and faster the mom can heal.
It's rarely discussed right after pregnancy, but high blood pressure is a serious concern for postmenopausal women. Research by Harvard Medical School has suggested that one in 29 cases of postmenopausal hypertension could be avoided if mothers breastfed for at least 12 months during their reproductive years.
Similar to the decreased risk for type II diabetes, researchers in the same study found that risk factors for stroke, heart attacks and other cardiovascular complications were more likely to appear in mothers who did not breastfeed, as compared to mothers who breastfed for a minimum of three months.
While these are very exciting health benefits for breastfeeding mothers, all of this research needs to be interpreted carefully. Though many studies have accounted for the variety of factors, confounding variables are inevitable. For example, women who choose to breastfeed most likely have other lifestyle choices that improve their lifelong health. However, variables aside, we can agree that breastfeeding for three months, six months or over a year provides many benefits to both mothers and babies.
Jennifer Mayer supports parents through pregnancy, birth, new parenthood and the transition back to work. Shes the founder of Baby Caravan, a birth & postpartum doula agency and Baby Caravan at Work, a corporate consulting practice based in New York City. Jennifer lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.