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Breastfeeding Benefits Moms, Too

By Alexa Pozniak
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center correspondent

breastfeedingMany moms-to-be are barraged with information touting the benefits of breastfeeding. From a boosted immune system to lower incidence of developing diabetes, much of the literature focuses on the baby. But a growing number of studies show that mothers are also protected by the practice, particularly when it comes to preventing a potentially deadly disease.

A growing body of research suggests a potential link between lactation and a lower incidence of developing breast cancer.

"This is an emerging area of research," says Jan Gutweiler, Lactation Program Coordinator at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She and her colleagues recently received the International Lactation Consultants Care Award, which recognized the exceptional breastfeeding services that BIDMC offers to women.

There are a number of different theories involving the connection between breastfeeding and breast cancer. Hormone balances are different during lactation, resulting in fewer menstrual cycles and lower estrogen levels. Estrogen is known to fuel 80 percent of all breast cancers. Breastfeeding may also cause changes to breast cells, making them more resistant to mutating into cancer cells.

High risk women may reap some of the biggest benefits by breastfeeding their babies.

A 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine reported that females with a family history of breast cancer were 59 percent less likely to develop breast cancer themselves if they breastfed their children. Other beneficiaries may also include women who wait to give birth until after age 35, which, today, means one in five females.

"Those who delay having a child until later in adulthood tend to be at a higher risk of developing breast cancer," Gutweiler explains. "But a National Institutes of Health study found that if they breastfeed, it cancels out the risk. So that's good news for all women, whether you're having your baby at 25 or 45."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an infant be breastfed exclusively for the first six months after birth. Three quarters of new moms start out breastfeeding, but how long they stick with it varies. So the question becomes, how long do moms have to breastfeed in order to fully benefit? The jury is still out, according to Gutweiler.

"We know the longer you breastfeed, the better off you and your baby are," she says. "But we really don't know exactly what the outward limit of it is or if there's a minimum amount of time you should breastfeed for. This is something that is still being studied."

A number of long-term studies are on the horizon, such as the Nurses Health Study 3, that will examine the link between breastfeeding and breast cancer. Gutweiler says education must follow suit.

"Moms tend to sacrifice themselves and focus on the welfare of the baby," she explains. "So we need to teach them how breastfeeding can benefit their health even before they're pregnant because education is key."

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted March 2012

Contact Information

BreastCare Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Shapiro Clinical Center, 5th floor 
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
Phone: 617-667-2900
Fax: 617-667-9711