Everyone talks about how important it is for a baby to be breastfed. The health benefits for children who are breastfed are well documented. Breastfed kids get sick less often with things like diarrhea and respiratory tract infections. They have a lower incidence of developing chronic diseases like diabetes. They even have a lower risk for some cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. But what about how breastfeeding affects moms? Is there anything in it for them?
The answer is a resounding yes. There are some pretty compelling benefits for women who breastfeed. Among them — it decreases the incidence of many diseases, including cancer.
There’s strong evidence that a woman who breastfeeds has a lower risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Research has consistently shown that both premenopausal women and women who’ve reached menopause have lower breast cancer rates if they’ve breastfed.
The protection breastfeeding provides is cumulative. The more months a woman has breastfed during her lifetime, the more protection she receives. These lower breast cancer rates are seen after a lifetime total of breastfeeding for at least 12 months. The Susan G Komen foundation states, “Although data are limited, breastfeeding for less than one year may also lower breast cancer risk.” The most significant benefit was seen in women who had breastfed for more than two years over their lifetime.
It appears that protection is provided in a variety of ways.
- Women have lower estrogen levels when lactating. Higher estrogen levels are a risk factor for breast cancer.
- When a woman weans her child from breastfeeding, the breasts shed tissue. It’s believed this can result in reducing the number of cells with damaged DNA. Cells with bad DNA can develop into cancer cells.
- Research also suggests breastfeeding may result in genetic changes
- The expression of genes that can cause cancer may be changed by breastfeeding.
There’s approximately a 20% lower risk for hormone receptor-negative breast cancers. These cancers are 20% of breast cancers and occur more often in younger women.
Research is currently underway to see if a woman who was breastfed as an infant has a reduced risk of breast cancer. To date, there hasn’t been compelling evidence to show any difference between women who were breastfed and those who weren’t.
The recommendation is to breastfeed for six months for optimal infant health exclusively. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages mothers to continue breastfeeding with the addition of complementary foods for at least a year.
While the focus is on how breastfeeding longer affects their child’s health, it’s vital for women to consider how it affects their own health as well. Not only does breastfeeding reduce a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer, it reduces her risk of ovarian cancer, as well.