Breastfeeding is not only beneficial for a baby, but for mothers, too, new research reported, protecting them both from serious illnesses — like breast cancer and heart disease in women — and sparing the healthcare system in the U.S. costs that run into the billions each year.
If mothers could breastfeed their babies as recommended for optimal health outcomes — exclusively for six months and then as a supplemental food source for a total of one year – more babies and women would be better protected, the researchers argue, stressing the need for programs that educate and assist women in breastfeeding their children.
The results were published online in the journal Maternal & Child Nutrition, in the study, “Suboptimal breastfeeding in the United States: Maternal and pediatric health outcomes and costs.”
According to its senior author, Dr. Alison Stuebe, the study highlights the importance of policies that make it possible for women to breastfeed. “Currently, 22 percent of employed mothers return to work within 10 days of birth,” she said in a press release. “Paid leave keeps mothers and babies together, which is essential for breastfeeding. Enacting paid family leave will impact the lifelong health of women and children.”
Stuebe is an associate professor of obstetrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a researcher of infant and young child feeding at the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute. The study noted that the U.S. ranked 26 out of 29 countries in infant mortality rates, according to 2014 data from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development database.
“Breastfeeding is far more beneficial in preventing disease and reducing costs than previously estimated,” added Dr. Melissa Bartick, lead author and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance. “The results should compel all hospitals to develop programs aimed at helping new moms learn to breastfeed their babies.”
Researchers examined the maternal and pediatric health outcomes of two groups of women: the first, called the ‘optimal’ group, included mothers that breastfed as recommended, while the second group, called the ‘suboptimal’ group, included mothers who breastfed at current rates in the United States, which are lower than the recommended rates.
The team then used previously collected scientific and government data to project disease occurrence rates and costs of conditions that breastfeeding is known to reduce. In mothers, these include breast cancer, pre-menopausal ovarian cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. For children, these include lymphoblastic leukemia, inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), lower respiratory tract infections, obesity, necrotizing enterocolitis, and SIDS.
But the biggest health benefits of breastfeeding, researchers said, was to mothers. “We found a substantially larger impact of breastfeeding on women’s health, compared with infant health, as the majority of excess deaths and direct health costs from suboptimal breastfeeding are related to women’s health outcomes,” the study reported. “Breastfeeding has historically been viewed as a children’s health issue; however, our results suggest that breastfeeding support must be seen as fundamental to all preventive health strategies for women.”
In total, researchers also estimated that $4.3 billion could be saved in medical expenses, and that suboptimal breastfeeding was associated with more frequent premature deaths in the country (3,340) each year, 78 percent of which were maternal and caused by heart attacks, breast cancer, or diabetes.
“Breastfeeding has long been framed as a child health issue, however it is clearly a women’s health issue as well,” said Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwartz, a study co-author and professor of medicine at UC Davis Health System. “Breastfeeding helps prevent cancer, diabetes and heart disease, yet many women have no idea breastfeeding has any of these benefits.”
Researchers concluded by arguing for greater social, medical, and economic support for women who give birth. “Systemic approaches are needed, because current social constructs in the United States make it difficult for women to breastfeed,” they concluded. “These constructs include lack of paid maternity leave, inadequate access to appropriate lactation care and services, and limited implementation of evidence-based maternity practices that support breastfeeding.”