While abdominal fat is important for a gestating baby's development, it can be bad for the mother's health after delivery. It has been linked to a greater risk of heart disease as well as diabetes.
According to Time Magazine:
“Animal studies have helped reveal other reasons ... Breastfeeding ... can increase a mother's response to insulin, allowing her to break down glucose more effectively and keep sugar metabolism in check. Lactation also inhibits hormones that promote growth hormone activity, which can also affect insulin levels.”
U.S. News & World Report also offers four reasons you should breastfeed your child for your own sake:
- Reproductive cancers. Prolonged nursing lowers your risks of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer. This could be because it suppresses the hormones that play a role in these cancers.
- Heart disease. Women who nurse for at least 24 months during their lives have a 23 percent lower risk of developing heart disease. Nursing may also decrease dangerous visceral fat.
- Rheumatoid arthritis. A number of studies have linked breastfeeding to protection from rheumatoid arthritis. One found that nursing for a total of two years decreased the risk by 50 percent.
- Diabetes. Nursing protects against type 2 diabetes, possibly because lactation makes cells more sensitive to the hormone insulin.
That breast milk is the best source of nutrition for newborns is one of the most clear-cut, non-debatable topics in health care. But that there are dramatic health benefits for the mother as well does not always receive as much attention.
But make no mistake about it, the benefits to the new mom are just as important and impressive as the health benefits the baby receives.
Unfortunately, many American mothers are still resistant to the idea of breastfeeding, for a variety of reasons.
According to a recent press release by the Cambridge Health Alliance, about 75 percent of American mothers initiate breastfeeding, but only 32 percent are still breastfeeding exclusively at three months.
Only about one in ten or a mere 12 percent of U.S. infants are breastfeed exclusively for six months…
A study published in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics called the current breastfeeding rate in the US “suboptimal” and calculated that health care costs could be reduced by a whopping $13 billion a year if 90 percent of US families would comply with the recommendation to breastfeed exclusively for six months.
It could also eliminate nearly 1,000 infant deaths.
At 80 percent compliance, an estimated $10.5 billion could be saved and nearly 750 infant deaths could be prevented.
Amazing how you never see the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC or the media announcing this from rooftops like they do when they want to vaccinate kids to “save lives,” as the benefits of breastfeeding are clearly superior to those of immunizations.
Health Benefits for Your Baby
Breastfeeding confers a host of health benefits to your baby, such as fewer:
- Ear infections
- Gastrointestinal illnesses
- Respiratory infections
But the health benefits they receive extend well past infancy; breastfed children are also less prone to obesity, type 2 diabetes, eczema, and certain cancers later on in life. And breast milk is a vital component for healthy brain development and function.
It is believed that the exclusive composition of breast milk benefits your child’s immune system and body fat composition, which would account for many of these long-term benefits.
Previous research has also found that infants who are breast-fed for more than 12 months also have a very low incidence of hypertension. Researchers believe this protective effect is due to the polyunsaturated fatty acids contained in breast milk.
As mentioned earlier, breastfeeding can also protect against infant death.
Several studies performed in the United States and other industrialized nations have revealed increased risks of SIDS among babies who receive formula instead of breast milk.
In fact, one U.S. study conducted in 2003 found that infants fed formula has a five times greater risk of dying from SIDS compared to breastfed infants!
And again, in 2009, researchers found that exclusive breastfeeding for just one month cut the risk of SIDS in half.
For even more health benefits to your baby, please review my previous article Seven Reasons to Breastfeed Your Child.
Nursing Mothers Reap Excellent Health Benefits Too!
But now on to the health benefits for the nursing mother, which are just as impressive.
It’s well known that breastfeeding can help you burn calories and get back to your pre-pregnancy weight faster. In fact, lactation will consume about 500 extra calories a day, helping you shed those pregnancy pounds more efficiently.
(However, many nursing women may find their appetite increases as well during this time, so weight loss is in part dependent on maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding unhealthy, processed snacks and foods.)
But the benefits for the mother don’t end there. Many of the other health benefits that breastfed children reap, the nursing mother gets as well.
Nursing Mothers Reduce Their Own Diabetes Risk as Well as Their Baby’s
Research published in The American Journal of Medicine this month shows that women who breastfeed for less than one month (compared to those who breastfeed longer, or have no children) almost double their risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on in life – even decades later.
So clearly, your child is not the only one who gets some added protection against diabetes from the simple act of breastfeeding.
The exact mechanism is still unknown, but one theory is that it is related to the weight reduction that nursing brings about. Visceral fat, the fat that clings around your midsection, has been linked to chronic inflammation and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), and is therefore considered a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
So although visceral fat is beneficial for your baby during gestation, this excess fat can contribute to health problems for you if you retain it, and it appears that breastfeeding is nature’s way of helping you shed this excess fat once it has served its intended purpose.
Another theory built on animal studies is that breastfeeding may improve your insulin response by promoting efficient glucose metabolism.
Time Magazine reports that:
“Lactation also inhibits hormones that promote growth hormone activity, which can also affect insulin levels.
In addition, studies have shown that when women do develop diabetes during pregnancy, known as gestational diabetes, breastfeeding the newborn can improve their glucose metabolism and help stabilize the condition.”
Whatever the mechanisms, the evidence is clear that the longer you breastfeed the better, but at the bare minimum, you’d want to nurse exclusively for at least one month, to reap health benefits for both yourself and your baby.
Ideally, you should strive to breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months, and only then begin to supplement with solid foods (while still continuing to breastfeed as well).
If you can continue past those first six months, know that breastfeeding longer is even better.
Breastfeeding for the First Year Imparts Added Long-Term Health Benefits for Mom
A study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2009 found that women who breastfed for a full 7 to 12 months, compared to women who never breastfed, were significantly less likely to develop diabetes or cardiovascular disease in their post-menopausal years.
The authors concluded that:
“Among postmenopausal women, increased duration of lactation was associated with a lower prevalence of hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and cardiovascular disease.”
A recent article in the US News & World Report also highlighted a number of health benefits that nursing mothers stand to gain, including protection against:
- Certain cancers, such as breast-, ovarian- and endometrial cancer -- This may be due to the fact that lactation suppresses ovulation, which exposes you to lower amounts of ovulatory hormones that contribute to the development of these particular cancers.
One Chinese study found that breastfeeding for two full years or more can reduce your risk of breast cancer by 50 percent!
- Rheumatoid arthritis – Similarly, a 2004 article in CBS News reported that breastfeeding for two years or longer also cuts women’s risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis by half.
The article states:
“Breastfeeding for between one and two years decreased the risk of rheumatoid arthritis by 20 percent, compared with women who did not breastfeed at all. Breastfeeding for at least two years decreased the risk of rheumatoid arthritis by 50 percent. This was total time spent breastfeeding all children. Breastfeeding for less than one year total did not decrease rheumatoid arthritis risk.”
The study, which was published in the November 2004 issue of Arthritis and Rheumatism, included nearly 122,000 women.
It is thought that lactation may permanently alter the levels of female sex hormones, which can contribute to rheumatoid arthritis. This is yet another reason for avoiding birth control pills…
Breastfeeding Myths Debunked
There are certain medical conditions that can prevent a woman from breastfeeding, however the majority of women are able to breastfeed successfully. Often, those who choose not to are doing so because of misinformation, so I want to clear up some of the myths right now.
MYTH 1: “I don’t have enough milk” – This is a common misperception. However, all women have enough milk to breastfeed. The more the baby nurses, the more milk you will produce!
MYTH 2:Infant formula is more nutritious -- This is absolutely not true. There are at least 400 nutrients in breast milk that are not found in formula. Of course, the healthier that a new mom eats, the healthier her breast milk will be.
MYTH 3: Breastfeeding is painful -- Breastfeeding can be painful for some women, but this is almost always the result of incorrect positioning. Trouble with positioning can be resolved by getting help from a lactation consultant.
Ideally, you’ll want to strive to breastfeed your baby exclusively for the first 6 months, at which point you can begin to supplement with solid foods. (But remember, even breastfeeding for as little as one month can impart great health benefits for both you and your baby.)
You should begin nursing as soon after birth as possible, as your baby’s sucking instinct will be very strong at that time, giving you the best chance of success.
In the beginning, the milk that is produced is called colostrum – a thick, golden-yellow fluid that is very gentle for your baby’s stomach and chockfull of beneficial antibodies.
As your baby continues to nurse, your milk will gradually change in color and consistency from thick and yellow, to thinner with a bluish-white hue.
Newborns need to nurse at least once every two hours, for about 15 minutes or so on each side, but most do not adhere to any kind of strict schedule and feedings can vary in length.
It is this frequent nursing that stimulates your breasts to produce increasing amounts of milk to keep up with demand.
There’s virtually no need to fret should your baby lose a little weight during the first week or so. This is normal, and she should have regained the weight by about two weeks of age.
Additional Help for Moms Who Can’t Breastfeed
You may want to begin planning for successful breastfeeding before your baby is even born. One consideration to take into account is that epidurals may have a detrimental effect.
One 2007 study discovered that women who receive epidural anesthesia during childbirth with the narcotic fentanyl may have trouble breastfeeding.
Women who got a fentanyl epidural reported more difficulty with breastfeeding in the first week early on, and they were also twice as likely to give up breastfeeding within the first six months. Evidence from other research suggests that fentanyl can interfere with infants' ability to suckle.
Whether you want to prepare beforehand, or find you’re having trouble breastfeeding once your baby is born, Le Leche League is a terrific resource to contact for help.
You can also call the National Women’s Health Information Center’s (NWHIC) Breastfeeding Helpline at 1-800-994-9662; TDD 1-888-220-5446 (9 a.m. – 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, EST). This hotline is staffed with La Leche League-trained breastfeeding information specialists.
Another helpful source is the American Academy of Pediatrics Breastfeeding Initiative.
However, if for whatever reason you’re still unable to breastfeed, please steer clear of commercial infant formulas as much as possible and definitely avoid all soy infant formula, as it is loaded with toxic elements like high doses of manganese and aluminum.
There is no question that it is the worst commercial food you could give your baby. It is likely that at some point in the future when all the health complications are fully appreciated, it will be removed from the market and banned.
The next best alternative to breast milk is to make a healthy homemade infant formula. There may be others, but here is one recipe for homemade formula created by the Weston Price Foundation, which I believe is sound.