Breastfeeding Could Help a Mother’s Heart —In More Ways Than You Think

American Heart Association

An analysis of data from 289,573 women in China found that those who breastfed their babies had about a 10 percent lower risk of developing heart disease or stroke.

Researchers and doctors have long touted the short- and long-term health benefits of breastfeeding, but research published Wednesday shows it also may reduce a woman’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke later in life.

An analysis of data from 289,573 women in China found that those who breastfed their babies had about a 10 percent lower risk of developing heart disease or stroke. The study, published in of the Journal of the American Heart Association, used data from women in the China Kadoorie Biobank study who provided detailed information about their reproductive history and lifestyle.

None of the women enrolled in the study had cardiovascular disease when it began, and researchers found that after eight years of follow-up, there were 16,671 cases of coronary heart disease, which includes heart attacks, and 23,983 strokes.

Because it is an observational study, relying on self-reported information, it doesn’t necessarily prove cause and effect. So, further study is needed. But researchers say these findings should encourage more widespread breastfeeding to help both baby and mother.

“The health benefits to the mother from breastfeeding may be explained by a faster ‘reset’ of the mother’s metabolism after pregnancy,” said study co-author Sanne Peters, Ph.D., a research fellow at Oxford University in England. “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.”

The American Heart Association recommends mothers breastfeed for one year. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends one year and thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.

In the United States, about eight in 10 mothers begin breastfeeding their babies at birth – but only about half of them are still breastfeeding after six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2016 Breastfeeding Report Card. Less than a third, 31 percent, of mothers were breastfeeding at 12 months.

In China, breastfeeding patterns are reversed from what studies in Western populations show, according to the study. In the West, women who breastfeed are generally wealthier and more likely to engage in other beneficial health behaviors. In China, poorer women from rural areas were more likely to breastfeed longer than their wealthier urban counterparts.

A quick rundown of the study results:

–Breastfeeding mothers had a 9 percent lower risk of heart disease and an 8 percent lower risk of stroke, compared to women who never breastfed.

–Among mothers who breastfed each baby for two years or more, heart disease risk was 18 percent lower and stroke risk was 17 percent lower than among mothers who never breastfed.

–Each additional six months of breastfeeding per baby was associated with a 4 percent lower risk of heart disease and a 3 percent lower risk of stroke.

Researchers said women in the study stopped exclusive breastfeeding prematurely for several reasons, such as illness, traditions about the introduction of solid foods, the “perceived insufficiency of breast milk” and lack of or inadequate places to breastfeed in the workplace, particularly in urban China.

Although there is increasing recognition of the importance of exclusive breastfeeding,” the study concluded, “genuine commitment from policy makers is needed to implement strategies in the health care system, communities and families, and the work environment that promote and support every woman to breastfeed. If effective and sustained, such efforts are likely to confer major benefits to the health of children and women, along with substantial cost savings.”