May 16, 2022
By Saira Kothari, Drexel University College of Medicine
We often hear of the multitude of health benefits breastfeeding has for a baby. This is likely one of the most motivating factors for people to breastfeed. However, there are also several important health benefits for breastfeeding parents. These benefits include both short-term and long-term influences on a person’s health. Since being a parent to a newborn baby requires a lot of giving, it is empowering for patients to be aware that making the decision to breastfed can also be for themselves and their own health.
Returning to the body’s baseline after a vaginal delivery or a C-section is quite a healing process, whether a new parent is feeling pain or not. Breastfeeding is both stimulated by and releases the hormone oxytocin, which can help foster bonding with the baby as well as causing uterine contractions. This causes the uterus to shrink and return to its pre-pregnancy size. It also decreases the amount of uterine bleeding after birth, lowering a new parent’s risk of anemia. Another benefit of breastfeeding in the time after delivery is its influence on postpartum depression. Many studies show that it decreases rates of postpartum depression by allowing pregnancy hormones to decrease more slowly rather than abruptly.
There are several important long-term effects that breastfeeding has as well. Many studies have found reduced incidence of certain pathologies in those who have breastfed. While nursing, the individual tends to have lower bone densities due to decreased estrogen levels and the baby’s increased need for calcium. However, those who breastfeed regain and surpass their baseline bone density after weaning. Studies have shown that the new, strengthened bone they build in this process reduces the risk of osteoporosis in the future. Breastfeeding also lowers a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, with studies showing that there is better glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity in the body. In addition, there have been associations established between breastfeeding and lower risks of high cholesterol, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease. Lastly, there has been substantial research showing decreased rates of breast cancer and ovarian cancer in women who have breastfed. With oral contraceptive use being one of the only known modifiable risk factors for ovarian cancer risk reduction and no standard screening tests for this cancer, this association is very important to be aware of when making an informed decision to breastfeed.
Overall, there are many reasons to choose to breastfeed if able. Of course, some may have more difficulty producing a milk supply than others based on their biology. It is important to offer education about breastfeeding to all pregnant people so they can make an informed decision, as well as lactation support from a trained professional for anyone who is interested in breastfeeding their children in any capacity.