A couple of days ago, I listened to a TEDMED 2014 talk by Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, director of the Women’s Health Services Research Unit at the University of Pittsburgh. The point of her talk was to raise awareness about the fact that breastfeeding may be a good thing for the long-term health of mothers and that adequate support should be more widespread (be it support at time of delivery in hospitals or longer maternity leaves).
Breastfeeding is good for babies, as we are constantly reminded (although the actual benefits in developed countries where there is no issue about clean water and good sanitation are less than what most popular literature would lead you to think ; for a well-written and entertaining read on the subject, I suggest this article; for a UK-based view of things, it’s here). What is rarely, if at all, discussed, is what good it might do to the mother.
As it turns out, breastfeeding has been associated with a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (1, 2), vascular changes that may lead to cardiovascular disease (3, 4, 5), and hypertension (6). It seems that these benefits may stem mostly from the simple fact that breastfeeding mothers loose more of their visceral adiposity (think abdominal fat) than mothers who do not breastfeed (7, 8), and this holds true even when taking into account age, number of children, several socioeconomic, lifestyle and family history variables, as well as BMI.
As Eleanor Bimla Schwarz noted in her talk, breastfeeding is not always easy, but neither is dieting nor exercising. Also, many women don’t have the time, or the means, to go to the gym to lose the “baby weight”. So why not start spreading the word about breastfeeding advantages for the mother a bit more? Besides other metabolic changes, breastfeeding will help lose some of the fat that the body had stored during pregnancy in order to feed the infant that was coming, and this will be beneficial to the mother’s health in the long run.
Of course, we are not talking here about any drastic changes in cardiovascular risk associated with breastfeeding, it’s nothing like, say, risk of lung cancer and smoking. Also, the duration of breastfeeding matters (the longer, the better), and in many countries maternity leave is not long enough to allow a woman to breastfeed for more than a few weeks to a few months, so benefits from breastfeeding may be limited. But however slight the risk reduction at the individual level may seem, it certainly matters at the level of a whole population, especially when considering public healthcare costs.
So why not stop solely focusing on the advantages of breastfeeding for the baby (which sadly turns too often into useless peer pressure and guilt-generating discussions), and start talking more about what the advantages of breastfeeding may be for the mother?
1. Lactation and maternal risk of type 2 diabetes: a population-based study.
2. Breast-feeding and maternal risk of type 2 diabetes: a prospective study and meta-analysis.
3. Lactation and maternal measures of subclinical cardiovascular disease.
4. Duration of lactation and risk factors for maternal cardiovascular disease.
5. Lactation and maternal subclinical cardiovascular disease among premenopausal women.
6. Duration of lactation and incidence of maternal hypertension: a longitudinal cohort study.
7. Maternal visceral adiposity by consistency of lactation.
8. Breastfeeding and subsequent maternal visceral adiposity.