Long-term Health Benefits of Breastfeeding

Published by Krista Gray on

The health benefits of breastfeeding for both a mother and her baby are so significant that they make breastfeeding one of the most powerful preventative measures you can take for your child’s health.  Though some benefits of breastfeeding are noticeable while a baby is being breastfed (such as lower rates of otitis media in baby and an effective, natural birth control for parents) other benefits will impact a mother and baby over the course of their entire lives.

The World Health Organization recommends that all babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and then continue breastfeeding alongside complimentary solids up to the age of two years or beyond.[1. World Health Organization, Statement 15 January 2011, “Exclusive breastfeeding for six months best for babies everywhere.”] Breastfeeding benefits for babies are most notable when they are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.  This is because their gastrointestinal tract, while completely formed, is still immature.  It needs to be coated with breast milk to give it time to grow and prepare to digest all other foods and drinks.  Breast milk truly is nature’s “superfood,” and the only food that a baby should have until she shows a readiness for solids sometime around the second half of the first year of life.

Breast milk continues to impart immunological and nutritional benefits to a child, no matter his age.    And the longer a baby is breastfed, the more health benefits for mother too!

Maternal Health Benefits Of Breastfeeding:

  1. Decreased Risk for Cardiovascular Disease
    A woman’s risk for high cholesterol, hypertension, and coronary heart and artery disease are all decreased the longer she breastfeeds.
  2. Reduced Cancer Risk
    A mother’s risk of developing breast, endometrial, and ovarian cancers are also reduced.  With all of these cancers on the rise around the world, having the protective benefits breastfeeding imparts is important.
  3. Decreased Rates Of Osteoporosis & Related Injuries
    Though mineral bone density levels may be lower during the time a woman breastfeeds, there is no long-term detrimental impact on bone density after weaning.  In fact, women who breastfeed have decreased rates of hip fractures and osteoporosis after menopause.
  4. Reduced Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis
    RA can be terribly difficult on the person who is diagnosed with it as well as the entire family.  Research suggests that breastfeeding for at least 13 months can reduce rheumatoid arthritis and its devastating consequences.[2. Pikwer, D.J., et al. (2009) Breastfeeding, but not use of oral contraceptives, is associated with reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 68(4), 514-8.]
  5. Lower Rate of Type II Diabetes and Obesity
    While breastfeeding is protective against these things in her baby, it is also protective in the mother.  Even when a mother was not breastfed as a child herself, she can reap the benefits of lower rates of Type II diabetes and obesity by breastfeeding her own child.  And the longer she nurses, the greater the benefits!

baby breastfeeding

Long-Term Health Benefits To Your Breastfed Child:

  1. Significantly Lower Rates of Gastrointestinal Illness
    Rates of Chrohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Disease, and Ulcerative Colitis are all significantly lower among those who were breastfed.  This makes sense given that breast milk is essential for the proper development of intestinal mucosa.
  2. Lower Risk of Diabetes
    Rates of both Type I and Type II diabetes are lower among children and adults who were breastfed.[3. Stuebe, A.M. (2009) The risks of not breastfeeding for mothers and infants. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2(4), 222-231.]
  3. Lower Risk of Childhood Cancers
    Several childhood cancers are greatly reduced in breastfed children: lymphoma, leukemia, and Hodgkin’s disease.  Researchers have identified a-lactalbumin, a protein in breast milk, which causes the death of abnormal cells.  This human milk protein does not exist in infant formulas.
  4. Less Risk of Obesity
    Obesity is a growing issue around the world.  Children who are breastfed have lower rates of obesity throughout their lifetimes.  There are several suggestions why.  Breastfeeding may have a cell programming effect in reducing overweight conditions.  It may be that since formula-fed babies have higher insulin concentrations in their plasma, it begins fat deposition in the body at an early age. It could be the impact of the hormone, leptin, in breast milk (which is not in formula) that helps regulate body weight. Or it could be a combination of each of these things!
  5. A Healthier Intestinal Tract & Immune System Response
    Allowing an infant’s gut adequate time to grow and mature before requiring his system to process foods or formula that can irritate it is key to developing a healthy intestinal tract.  Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life helps children avoid (or lessen) the impact of lifelong struggles with asthma and allergies.

With all of these amazing breastfeeding benefits we should all, on both an individual as well as societal level, seek to encourage and support mothers in their breastfeeding journeys!

Feature Image Photo Credit: Frolics With Dragonflies (Aaron M. Coyle) via Compfight cc

Krista Gray is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), La Leche League Leader, and mother of four breastfed children including preemie twins. At Nursing Nurture Krista shares research-based information and experience to help moms in their breastfeeding journeys. You can also connect with Krista on Twitter {@nursingnurture} and on Facebook {fb.com/NursingNurture}.

1 Comment

Bonnie | ProvenNutritionForKids · November 7, 2013 at 9:22 am

Krista, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on this important topic of breastfeeding with us! Breastfeeding in today’s fast-paced culture is not always easy. Perhaps this post will help encourage new moms to continue through the challenges and to make breastfeeding a priority.

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