Breastfeeding: Preventive Health Care for Mothers and Babies

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Monday, July 15, 2002

Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, Senior Fellow
Anne Stover, FemFacts Editor

Previous studies have already shown that a mother’s breast milk is the best food for her infant. Antibodies in breast milk provide immunities against various colds and ailments. Breast milk also contains the proper amount of fatty acids, lactose, amino acids, and water for the baby’s growth and development. Breast-feeding is also a special time of bonding between a mother and her baby. Now, however, new information indicates that not only is breastfeeding in the best interest of the child, it is in the best interest of the mother as well. A recent study shows that mothers who breast-feed reduce their risk for breast cancer.

Women who do not breast-feed and those who have fewer children are at an increased risk for developing breast cancer, according to a new study published in the July 20, 2002 issue of The Lancet. Researchers found that women with breast cancer had fewer children than women without breast cancer. Fewer mothers with cancer (71 percent) breastfed while more mothers (79 percent) without cancer breastfed. Furthermore, of the mothers who breastfed, the mothers with cancer breastfed for 9.8 months, while the mothers without cancer breastfed for 15.6 months.

The study also shows that for every year of breast-feeding, a mother can decrease her risk of developing breast cancer by 4.3 percent, and each additional childbirth can reduce the risk by 7 percent.

This study sheds more light on the benefits of a mother’s care and attention for her child during his or her first year of life. These findings are particularly important for working mothers living in developed countries – where instances of breast cancer are the highest – to consider. Women in developed countries are more active in the workforce and have smaller families than women in developing countries. A recent study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development finds that in the families they studied, 55 percent of the mothers were working by their child’s third month of life, 71 percent by the sixth month, and 75 percent by the ninth month. These are the months during which a child needs his or her mother’s breast milk as nourishment.

The researchers estimate that if women in developed countries had 2.5 children, on average, and breastfed each child for 6 months longer than they currently do, about 5 percent of breast cancer cases would be prevented annually. Furthermore, if mothers breastfed each child for an additional 12 months, about 11 percent of breast cancer cases could be prevented each year.

This new information should encourage women who are, or are considering becoming working mothers, to stay at home for a longer period of time with their child before placing him or her into an alternative care-giving situation. Staying at home as long as possible will benefit the physical and emotional development of both mother and baby.

Dr. Gillian Reeves, a co-researcher for the study said that it is unclear why motherhood and nursing protect against breast cancer; however, scientists suspect that pregnancy and lactation cause changes to breast tissue making it less prone to cancer.

A woman’s body is unquestionably designed for motherhood. Her body not only knows exactly what her baby needs while in utero, but exactly what her baby needs nutritionally once he or she has been born.

If women in developed countries, like the United States, had larger families and breastfed for a longer duration, the study suggests that breast cancer cases would be reduced by more than half – from 6.3 to 2.7 per 100 women. By choosing not to breast-feed, mothers are depriving their children of nature’s perfect baby food, as well as depriving themselves of valuable preventive health care.

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