The benefits of breastfeeding
You already know nursing is great for your baby. But it can also boost your health in lots of ways — here’s how.
Congrats on your new baby! If you’re nursing, you may already know that breastmilk is the perfect food for your infant. It’s packed with nutrients and is easy for your baby to digest. And breastfed babies are less likely to get certain diseases and conditions.
But you might not realize all the ways that breastfeeding benefits your health, too. For starters, it’s a great way to bond with your little one. And nursing also works wonders on mothers in other ways, from weight loss to a lower risk of some cancers.
Read on to learn the perks of breastfeeding for moms. Plus, we’ve got a refresher on how it can keep your baby healthy now and in the future.
How breastfeeding boosts your health
The longer you nurse throughout your childbearing years, the bigger the health benefits. Here are just some of the ways breastfeeding is good for you:
It helps your uterus recover. “Breastfeeding right after giving birth will help get your uterus back to its pre-pregnancy size and shape much quicker,” says Paula Meier. She’s a professor of pediatrics at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois.
Why is that important? It lowers your risk of hemorrhaging (heavy bleeding after giving birth) and getting a postpartum uterine infection. That’s one of the most immediate benefits of nursing.
It reduces breast cancer risk. One reason why may be that when you nurse, it creates hormonal changes in your body. It can lower your exposure to estrogen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “And over time, estrogen can raise the risk of breast cancer cell growth,” says Meghan Klavans, MD. She’s an OB-GYN at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois.
And the longer you breastfeed, the greater the benefit. Moms who nurse for a combined total of a year (for all their children) have a slightly lower risk of breast cancer, according to the Susan G. Komen foundation. Those who breastfeed for a combined total of 2 years get twice the benefit of those who breastfeed for a total of 1 year.
It cuts your chances of ovarian cancer. Lower exposure to estrogen also reduces your ovarian cancer risk. “Recent research shows that even the most severe form of ovarian cancer is reduced by 34% with long-duration breastfeeding,” says Meier.
It helps you lose baby weight. Breastfeeding resets the body’s metabolism after giving birth by mobilizing energy stores for lactation (making milk). That helps you lose weight more quickly after giving birth, says the Cleveland Clinic. It also helps lower your risk of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and high blood pressure later in life.
It can protect your heart. A 2022 study found that mothers who nursed their babies were less likely to develop heart disease or stroke. Women who breastfed also had improved long-term heart health. “It’s possible that hormones released during breastfeeding are beneficial to your cardiovascular system,” says Dr. Klavans. Weight loss may also play a role in boosting your heart health.
It may help prevent diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is less common in women who breastfeed. In a study, breastfeeding for longer than 2 months was shown to lower the risk by half. And nursing for 5 months or more lowered it even more, says the American Diabetes Association.
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Health benefits for babies
Breastfeeding is good for your baby’s health, too, of course. Fat, proteins and antibodies in breast milk help little ones fight off infections and other illnesses on their own. According to the CDC, babies who nurse have a lower risk of:
- Ear infections
- Stomach bugs
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- Type 1 diabetes
Breast milk may also impact early brain development.
How long should you breastfeed?
First, you should know that if you choose not to breastfeed, that’s all right. Formula is a great option, too. Unless your baby’s pediatrician recommends otherwise, it’s good to start with a cow’s-milk-based formula that’s fortified with iron. Most formulas also have added fatty acids that are good for your baby’s brain.
Also, many moms simply can’t nurse for a long time. Work, travel or other children may make constant breastfeeding impractical.
(P.S. Is this your first baby? Check out our new-mom health guide.)
If possible, mothers should breastfeed their babies for 2 years, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s because a child’s brain grows rapidly during the first 2 years of life. You can still nurse while also introducing your infant to solid food. This is recommended at around 6 months old, per the CDC. But breastfeeding will continue to give your baby extra protection against allergies and infections.
Cancer prevention: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). “Breastfeeding for Cancer Prevention”
Breastfeeding duration: Susan G. Komen (2022). “Breastfeeding and Breast Cancer Risk”
Weight loss: Cleveland Clinic (2018). “Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby and Mom”
Heart disease: Journal of the American Heart Association (2022). “JAHA spotlight on pregnancy and its impact on maternal and offspring cardiovascular health”
Diabetes: American Diabetes Association (n.d.). “Breastfeeding and Diabetes”
Breastfeeding mothers: American Academy of Pediatrics (2018). “Updated Policy Recommendations”
Solid foods: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). “When, what, and how to introduce solid foods”