The old adage of “breast is best” continues to hold water (or milk, as the case may be). It’s been long since lauded as the best way to boost a baby’s immunity and has been shown to reduce asthma, allergies, ear infections, and respiratory issues. And although it’s not definitive that breastfed babies become smarter, healthier adults than those who were given formula, some data has found a correlation between breastfeeding and higher IQs and better body weights among older children. It’s no wonder that in 2015, 26.8% of survey respondents said they expressed breast milk five to 15 times a week for their children.
But breastfeeding isn’t beneficial only for babies; it’s been shown to be advantageous for mothers, too. Not only does it help create a bond between mother and child, but it can also help new moms lose pregnancy weight and even lower their risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It’s not just a great decision for women’s health issues, though: new data shows that breastfeeding may help reduce the risk of heart disease in mothers up to a decade after they’ve stopped nursing.
The study, which was published by the Journal of the American Heart Association, involved nearly 290,000 women in China. These women provided researchers with information on the number of children they’ve had, whether or not they breastfed, and if so, for how long. After following the health records of these participants for almost a decade, researchers found that the risk of heart disease in those who breastfed was 9% lower than those who did not.
Interestingly, the effects of breastfeeding seem to be cumulative, according to the study’s results. Those women who had more than one child and breastfed each baby for two years or more lowered their heart disease and stroke risks by 18%, compared to moms who didn’t breastfeed at all.
Researchers were careful to adjust results for factors like cholesterol and blood pressure levels, obesity, smoking, and amount of physical activity. But even when these factors were taken into account, the correlation was still strong.
That said, correlation doesn’t determine causation; the results don’t mean that moms who choose not to breastfeed will definitively develop heart issues. But it’s possible that the link may be that breastfeeding allows moms to lose fat they’ve accumulated during pregnancy. If mothers hold on to fat they don’t need, that could contribute to gain weight later on — which can then increase risk factors for heart disease like cholesterol.
Study co-author Dr. Sanne Peters at the University of Oxford notes in the publication, “The health benefits to the mother from breastfeeding may be explained by a faster ‘reset’ of the mother’s metabolism after pregnancy … Pregnancy changes a woman’s metabolism dramatically as she stores fat to provide the energy necessary for her baby’s growth and for breastfeeding once the baby is born. Breastfeeding could eliminate the stored fat faster and more completely.”
Although the World Health Organization currently recommends mothers breastfeed their children exclusively for the first six months of life, the American Heart Association now recommends new mothers breastfeed their babies for one year, according to a news release. And while it’s not always possible for every mother to do so, the health benefits of breastfeeding are so strong that new moms may be encouraged to consider the practice.