It's not just babies who benefit.
As a new mama, deciding how to nourish your baby (or babies!) is one of the first parenting choices you’ll make. You may already know about the many great benefits of breastfeeding for babies. But do you know what it means for moms?
Not only can breastfeeding help your body bounce back after childbirth, it may protect you against certain diseases long after your childbearing years. Women who breastfeed enjoy lower risks of certain cancers, for example, compared with moms who do not.
“There are still many mothers who aren't aware of this effect on their own health,” says Eleanor Schwarz, MD, a women’s health researcher and professor of medicine at the University of California Davis, Sacramento.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for a year or longer, as mutually desired by mom and baby.
But Tracy Flanagan, MD, director of women’s health for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, stresses that women should be supported in whatever choice they make for themselves, their babies, and their families.
“We’re very supportive of breastfeeding, but we’re also supportive of women who decide, for whatever reason, that they can’t exclusively breastfeed or breastfeed as long [as recommended],” she says.
As you weigh your options, consider these benefits of breastfeeding for mom.
Breastfeeding burns calories
Producing breast milk requires extra energy. Experts estimate the number of calories burned breastfeeding ranges from 300 to 500 a day!
To shed any excess weight after giving birth, you can typically consume the same number of calories as you did before getting pregnant, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health.
However, since everyone is different, it’s best to talk to your doctor about whether you might need to increase your caloric intake to breastfeed.
It reduces uterine bleeding after birth
After you give birth, your uterus “is like this large sack,” Dr. Flanagan explains. The blood vessels where the placenta was attached need to close off. One of the benefits of breastfeeding is that it hastens the recovery process.
When you nurse your baby, your body releases oxytocin, a hormone that helps your uterus contract, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. These contractions help the uterus shrink back to size, reducing the amount of bleeding that occurs after childbirth.
Dr. Flanagan calls it “a win-win all around” because the baby gets nourished, mom and baby get to bond, and mom’s uterus gets smaller and stops bleeding.
Breastfeeding lowers your risk of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancer
Breastfeeding has been shown in multiple studies to protect moms against cancers that affect women.
In one large review of studies, women’s breast cancer risk was reduced by more than 4% for each year of breastfeeding. One possible reason? Breastfeeding suppresses estrogen, which can promote abnormal cell growth.
Likewise, breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of endometrial cancer–11% lower than moms who didn’t breastfeed, one review found. Another analysis links longer breastfeeding with a lower likelihood of developing ovarian cancer.
What these and other disease-avoidance studies highlight are the “risk of not breastfeeding,” Dr. Schwarz explains. “It’s really about breastfeeding being the recovery from pregnancy,” she says.
It reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes
Breastfeeding for six months or more cuts women’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes by nearly half, compared with moms who don’t breastfeed. Even breastfeeding for less than six months is beneficial, reducing the risk by a quarter.
Lactation may have a protective effect on pancreatic cells that control blood insulin levels, say Kaiser Permanente researchers who conducted the long-term study.
This benefit may be particularly appealing if you already have an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes, like if you have a family history of the disease.
Breastfeeding lowers risks for heart disease
Heart disease remains the number one killer of women in the United States. But here’s a tip: Breastfeeding may provide some protection later in life.
In a large study involving postmenopausal women, Dr. Schwarz and colleagues found the longer women breastfeed, the lower their risk factors for developing heart disease.
Those reporting a lifetime history of more than 12 months of breastfeeding were less likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or heart disease compared with women who never breastfed.
It may whittle your middle
Breastfeeding your babies can make a real difference in your waistline years later.
Using CT imaging, Dr. Schwarz and colleagues studied the effects of breastfeeding on body fat distribution. Mothers who never breastfed had 28% greater belly fat and a 2 1/2-inch greater waist circumference later in life than moms who breastfed all of their children for three or more months.
Some studies suggest you can lose weight while breastfeeding, although the amount of weight loss attributable to lactation is relatively small.
“I think sometimes moms can be frustrated if they’re looking at the scale,” Dr. Schwarz says. “But what we do see is that moms who breastfeed have much less belly fat than moms who don’t breastfeed. And, unfortunately, belly fat is what’s really dangerous later in life,” she says.
Breastfeeding may protect against certain autoimmune diseases
One study comparing women with MS (or early signs of the condition) with otherwise healthy women found that those who breastfed for 15 months or more were half as likely to go on to develop MS versus moms who breastfed for four months or less.
Likewise, research shows an association between longer breastfeeding and lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. One Chinese study found that among women who’d had at least one live birth, those who breastfed were half as likely to have RA as moms who did not.
It can delay menstruation
You might consider a break from tampons and pads one of the benefits of breastfeeding.
In moms who are exclusively breastfeeding, ovulation resumes sometime between three and five months after delivery, Dr. Flanagan says. “And if a woman is not breastfeeding, ovulation will happen somewhere between four and 10 weeks out from delivery," at which time she’ll begin menstruating again.
“Some women are really happy about not getting their period back for a while,” she adds.
Breastfeeding saves time and money
Breast milk is not only readily available, it’s free for the taking.
Buying formula, by contrast, can set you back as much as $1,500 in the first year alone.
Depending on the type of formula you choose, there may be a bit of prep work involved, and there's bottle washing to consider, of course. But you can breastfeed just about anywhere and anytime. (Case in point: This mom breastfeeds while doing a yoga handstand.)
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And it gives you extra time to bond with your baby
Breastfeeding promotes an emotional attachment between mom and her little one, studies show.
“When I talk to women who are breastfeeding, they often talk about it as the most special time that they spend with their child,” says Dr. Flanagan.
Breastfeeding promotes closeness and uninterrupted time between the mother and child, she explains. “It’s this love fest that’s happening again and again!”