Discussions about breastmilk often focus on the way it can promote both short-and-long-term health for babies. However, a new study published online in the journal Maternal & Child Nutrition has found that breastfeeding is even more of a health issue for mothers; in fact, it may be a lifesaver.1
The study analysed the health and economic costs of not breastfeeding as medically recommended. This was defined as exclusive breastfeeding for six months with continued breastfeeding for at least one year for each child.
What the study looked at
The study looked at an “optimal” group, in which the majority of mothers breastfed as recommended, and compared it to a “suboptimal” group, in which mothers breastfed for less than recommended, but in line with current US rates. The researchers used existing research and government data to project the rates and costs of diseases that breastfeeding is known to reduce. They also looked at the rates and costs of early deaths from those diseases.
The study covered a wide range of conditions which affect both mothers and children. As well as looking at adult conditions such as breast cancer, pre-menopausal ovarian cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and hypertension, the researchers included conditions that affect children, such as ear infections, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, gastrointestinal infections, obesity, necrotising enterocolitis, lower respiratory tract infections and SIDS.
The researchers say that this is the first US study to combine maternal and paediatric diseases into a single unit, enabling them to look at the complete public health impact of breastfeeding. For every 597 women who “optimally” breastfeed, one maternal or child death is prevented from one of the 14 maternal or paediatric diseases looked at.
The study’s lead author was Dr. Melissa Bartick, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Hospitalist at Cambridge Health Alliance. In an online interview about the study, 2 she said the researchers had been surprised that results showed breastfeeding was even more of an issue for maternal health than for children.
They found that if 90 percent of US mothers breastfed for one year it could avert 5,023 cases of breast cancer per year. This translates to averting one case of breast cancer for around every 397 women breastfeeding as medically recommended.
For hypertension, the study found that 35,392 cases and 322 deaths might be avoided, and only 55 women would have to breastfeed to avert a case of hypertension.
235 women would have to breastfeed ‘optimally’ to prevent a heart attack, while 162 would need to do so to prevent a case of diabetes.
Avoiding premature deaths
The researchers concluded that more than 3,340 premature deaths in the US annually were associated with suboptimal breastfeeding. This accounted for $3 billion in medical cost.
The vast majority of those deaths were maternal, in particular from heart attacks and diabetes. SIDS was a major cause of death for infants.
The study did not intend to put pressure on women
Dr. Bartick was keen to point out that the study did not intend to put pressure on women, but aimed to raise awareness of women’s health. She said women should be supported to take care of themselves and society needed to take care of women. Helping women to achieve their own breastfeeding goals was an important part of this.
In common with mothers in the UK, most women in the US want to breastfeed: over 80 percent of US women initiate breastfeeding. However, US data shows that 60 percent of women aren’t meeting their own breastfeeding goals, which indicates that they are not getting the support they need to breastfeed.
It is acknowledged that some women make an informed choice not to breastfeed, and this should be respected. However, women who stop before they wanted to often feel let-down and upset, and more support might have made a difference.
Breastfeeding is a public health issue
As a public health issue, breastfeeding is just as important for women’s health as it is for children. Being aware of both the lives which could be saved and the financial savings, public policies could be put into place to support women to breastfeed for longer. Dr. Bartick emphasised that two important issues were support for breastfeeding in the workplace and great acceptance of breastfeeding in public.
The study concluded that breastfeeding has a larger impact on women’s health than previously appreciated, and a much bigger impact in terms of medical costs and potential lives saved.