Maternal benefits of breastfeeding
When people talk about breastfeeding, they usually focus on the benefits for babies. Your family, friends, pediatricians and OBGYNs will tell you that breastmilk provides excellent nutrition and has major health benefits for babies. But what we don’t talk about nearly enough, are the significant positive impacts that breastfeeding has on mom.
A major short term benefit of breastfeeding is accelerated postpartum weight loss. Breastfeeding or pumping breastmilk can burn up to 500 calories per day. This burn rate is equivalent to going on a five mile run, or doing a 60 minute HIIT workout. In combination with staying active and eating a healthy diet, lactation helps moms efficiently achieve pre pregnancy weight. For those who started pregnancy with a BMI in the overweight or obese category, lactation can provide an added calorie deficit to promote weight loss. Pregnancy weight gain is expected and encouraged, and breastfeeding is nature’s way of utilizing fat stores and bringing you back to pre pregnancy homeostasis.
More impressive than any short term advantages to breastfeeding are the long term impacts on maternal health. Women who breastfeed are less likely to develop health complications later in life. Results from the Million Women Study in the United Kingdom demonstrate that postmenopausal body mass index (BMI) is 1% lower for every 6 months that a woman breastfeeds. There is also a dose-response relationship between the number of months of lactation and risk of metabolic syndrome. In a study of nearly 140,000 postmenopausal women, those who reported a lifetime history of more than 12 months of lactation were statistically significantly less likely to have hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, or cardiovascular disease than women who never breastfed.
Breastfeeding also decreases the risk of female cancers including breast, ovarian and uterine cancer. It has been shown that for each year a mother breastfeeds during her life, her risk of invasive breast cancer decreases by more than 4%. A study of nearly 10,000 ovarian cancer patients and controls showed that breastfeeding was associated with a 24% lower risk of invasive ovarian cancer. As for endometrial cancer, pooled data from the Epidemiology of Endometrial Cancer Consortium demonstrated that having ever breastfed was associated with an 11% reduction in risk of endometrial cancer.
Breastfeeding is hard work, and the reasons why people choose to breastfeed or not are varied and complex. Whatever your personal calculus is, just make sure that the health and wellness benefits for YOU are taken into account. When I am pumping in between OR cases or during a busy clinic day and I feel overwhelmed, it helps me to know that I am doing something good for me and my body, as well as making food for my baby. And remember, breastfeeding is not all or nothing. Maybe you direct feed, or pump, or both. Maybe you fortify with formula, supplement with formula, or use donor milk along with yours. Whatever your situation, any amount of lactation is meaningful.
Dr. Buckheit has breastfed her two daughters each with a very different journey. She direct breastfed and pumped for her first while a resident at Duke. Her second child was born premature and has feeding difficulties, so she has pumped exclusively for her and fortified and supplemented with formula.
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Jordan SJ, Na R, Johnatty SE, et al. Breastfeeding and Endometrial Cancer Risk: An Analysis From the Epidemiology of Endometrial Cancer Consortium. Obstet Gynecol. 2017 Jun;129(6):1059-1067. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000002057. PMID: 28486362; PMCID: PMC5473170.