Breast-Feeding Is Good for the Mother, and Not Just the Baby

Women who breast-feed are less likely to develop breast cancer, ovarian cancer, Type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis and may have improved cardiovascular health.

CreditCreditStuart Bradford
Roni Caryn Rabin

Most women know breast-feeding is good for their babies’ health. But doctors and midwives rarely tell moms-to-be that it’s also good for nursing mothers.

Nursing mothers reduce their relative risk of breast cancer by 4.3 percent for every 12 months they breast-feed, in addition to a relative decrease of 7 percent for each birth. Breast-feeding is particularly protective against some of the most aggressive tumors, called hormone receptor-negative or triple-negative tumors, which are more common among African-American women, studies show. It also lowers the risk by one-third for women who are prone to cancer because of an inherited BRCA1 mutation.

Women who breast-feed are also less likely to develop ovarian cancer, Type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis and may have improved cardiovascular health.

Yet only 16 percent — or fewer than one in five women surveyed — said their doctors had told them that breast-feeding is good for mother as well as baby, according to a new study published in Breastfeeding Medicine.

“We have an ounce of prevention that could save lives,” said Dr. Bhuvaneswari Ramaswamy, the paper’s senior author and an associate professor of medical oncology at Ohio State University in Columbus. “But are we fully educating the mothers when they make this difficult choice? Because it is not an easy choice.”

While companies market infant formula by claiming their products are effective substitutes for breast milk, Dr. Ramaswamy said, “formula is not going to help women live longer and be there for their families.”

The new study surveyed 724 women aged 18 to 50 who had given birth to at least one child. The vast majority of them had breast-fed.

Just over half knew before they gave birth that breast-feeding reduced the risk of breast cancer, and over a third of those said the information influenced their decision to breast-feed.

But only 120 of the women said that their health care providers had informed them about the implications for their own long-term health. Most of those who knew about the health advantages to nursing moms had gleaned the information from popular media or the internet. And these women tended to breast-feed for much longer — 13 months on average — than women who did not know about the health implications, who breast-fed for only nine months on average.