In the observational study, researchers analyzed data on 289,573 women in China and found that those who breastfeed were almost 10% less likely to develop heart disease and stroke than mothers who said they had never breastfed. The study found that there was an even lower risk for those who breastfed their babies for two years or more.
While there is a lot of research about the positive effects of breastfeeding for babies, ranging from strengthened immune systems to fewer allergies, there isn't as much research on the effects on mothers, according to Lori Blauwet, director of the cardio-ob clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
She notes that another study found a similar link between breastfeeding and heart health, but only for mothers who practiced it for two years or longer. She notes that studies just point to an association between breastfeeding and lower heart disease risk, but neither study mean that women who choose not to breastfeed or can't will develop heart issues.
"This is really a call for us to do further research in this area, to see if there really are long term beneficial effects, but this shouldn't be taken as mothers who don't breastfeed are hurting themselves," she said. "For a lot of women, there are reasons why they cannot breastfeed."
While the study was able to account for factors that affect heart disease like smoking, obesity and diabetes, it was unable to account for diet.
The observational nature of the study, or that the women made their own decision to breastfeed rather than being randomized to breastfeed or not, also plays a part in the outcome of the study, according to Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Glatter notes that women "with higher BMIs tend not to begin breastfeeding as well as continue it for any significant duration," he said. He notes the same is true of mothers who suffer from depression or anxiety or may have issues bonding with child.
"What we do know is that anxiety, depression, being overweight and having low levels of the hormone oxytocin all elevate risk of cardiovascular disease," he said. "And what we generally see is that women who practice a healthier lifestyle tend to breastfeed more often, while those who are not as healthy don't seem to adopt the practice."
Blauwet notes that while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for a year, it's often hard in the United States for women who are working or may have health issues to continue breastfeed to the recommended date.
With the amount of pressure on new moms, the message should not be about shame for being unable to breastfeed if they cannot or don't make it to a full year, she said.
"I want to emphasize women shouldn’t be made to feel guilty if they do not breastfeed because there could be reasons why they can't," she said.
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