We constantly hear about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, from protecting newborns from disease and boosting immunity to a reduced risk of high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes later in life. Well, here's something extra that breastfeeding moms can cheer about: A new study suggests there are important health benefits for nursing moms, too!
The study, published in the Journal of American Heart Association, says breastfeeding moms are 9 percent less likely to have heart disease and 8 percent less likely to have a stroke than non-breastfeeding moms. The effects seem to be cumulative. For every additional six months of breastfeeding, there is a 4 percent lower risk of heart disease and 3 percent lower risk of stroke. And for women who had more than one child and breastfed each of their babies for two years or more, their risk of heart disease and stroke lowered by 18 percent.
Researchers from China and the U.K. analyzed data from almost 290,000 women, ages 30 to 70, in China for more than eight years. They adjusted for factors such as cholesterol levels, smoking, obesity, blood pressure and physical activity. But they weren't able to account for diet. None had cardiovascular disease when they first enrolled in the study, and all made their own decisions whether or not to breastfeed.
It's not clear yet why these benefits exist, and further studies are needed.
"If they are causal, the health benefits to the mother from breastfeeding may be explained by a faster 'reset' of the mother’s metabolism after pregnancy," explains Sanne Peters, the study's co-author and a epidemiologist at Oxford University. In other words, during pregnancy, there are huge changes to a woman's metabolism as she stores fat for her developing baby and to prep for breastfeeding when the baby is born. Breastfeeding can eliminate that stored fat more efficiently, while women who don't breastfeed still have metabolic reserves they don't need. This, says Peters, may contribute to more weight gain and higher risks for heart disease.
Although the participants are in China, the study's results is in line with similar studies from the U.S., like the Nurses' Health Study in 2008.
"So while breastfeeding practices differ both within and across countries and cultures, there is no evidence that such differences had a major impact on our findings," Peters says.
It's important to note that while there seems to be a strong association between breastfeeding and lower risk of heart disease, it doesn't mean women who don't breastfeed will develop heart problems.
"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," Lori Blauwet, director of the cardio-ob clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, told USA Today.
There's already a lot of pressure on new moms, so the message here isn't about shame. Really if there's any takeaway, it's this: Mothers' bodies are freakin' cool.