Breastfeeding provides major health advantages for mothers that can last for years or even decades. Here are 10 research-backed ways breastfeeding improves a mom's physical and mental health.
When a woman breastfeeds her child, she gains benefits that go far beyond bonding with her baby. Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce a mom's risk of several serious diseases, help her lose pregnancy weight faster, and even boost her IQ.
While breastfeeding offers well-documented benefits for babies, it is also one of the best things a woman can do for her own health, both in the short term and long term. Keep reading to learn 10 science-based ways breastfeeding improves a mother's wellbeing.
1. Reduces Breast Cancer Risk
Multiple studies show that breastfeeding reduces a woman's risk of developing breast cancer later in life. Breastfeeding for a longer duration provides greater protection.
Research has found that women who breastfeed for at least one year over their lifetime have a 28% lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who never breastfeed. Breastfeeding for two years or longer may reduce breast cancer risk by 50% or more.
This protective effect is likely due to the changes breastfeeding makes to breast tissue structure and function. Breastfeeding reduces exposure to estrogen, which fuels the growth of breast cancer cells.
2. Reduces Ovarian Cancer Risk
In addition to lowering breast cancer risk, breastfeeding can protect against ovarian cancer as well. Research demonstrates that women who breastfeed experience lowered rates of ovarian cancer.
A meta-analysis that combined data from 30 studies found that breastfeeding for at least 13 months over a woman's lifetime reduces her risk of ovarian cancer by 27%. Breastfeeding for 25 months or longer led to a 37% lower ovarian cancer risk.
Experts theorize that breastfeeding suppresses ovulation, which reduces damage and inflammation that can lead to malignant changes in ovarian cells.
3. Reduces Osteoporosis Risk
Osteoporosis is a bone-weakening disease that causes over 1.5 million fractures annually in the U.S. alone. Breastfeeding may help protect mothers against osteoporosis later in life.
When a woman breastfeeds, her body draws on calcium stores in her bones to enrich her breastmilk with this mineral. To prevent bone mineral loss, the body increases production of a hormone called osteocalcin.
Research shows that women who breastfeed have higher bone mineral density compared to women who do not. A study of over 200 postmenopausal women found that those who breastfed for 7-12 months over their lifetime had higher hip bone density than women who never breastfed.
4. Promotes Postpartum Weight Loss
Many women wish to lose the extra weight they gain during pregnancy. Breastfeeding can help with postpartum weight loss by burning calories.
Breastfeeding requires an estimated 500 extra calories per day to produce breastmilk. This means a breastfeeding mother uses more energy than a non-breastfeeding mom.
According to studies, breastfeeding mothers lose more weight than mothers who don’t breastfeed, especially in the first three to six months after giving birth. Breastfeeding helps mobilize fat stores that accumulate during pregnancy.
5. Helps Uterus Contract
After a woman gives birth, her uterus remains enlarged and heavy with blood and tissue. Breastfeeding releases oxytocin, a hormone that causes uterine contractions to shrink the uterus back to its regular size more quickly.
Doctors often recommend breastfeeding immediately after delivery to help the uterus contract and minimize blood loss. Breastfeeding also lowers a woman's risk of developing a postpartum hemorrhage.
6. Reduces Type 2 Diabetes Risk
Type 2 diabetes plagues over 10% of the U.S. population. Many studies demonstrate that breastfeeding cuts a woman's risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Analysis of two major U.S. studies found that women who breastfed for 1-2 years over their lifetime had a 15% lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Women who breastfed for 2 or more years reduced their risk by 30%.
Researchers propose that breastfeeding may balance blood sugar and insulin levels, which could lower diabetes risk. Breastfeeding may also limit weight retention after pregnancy, another contributor to diabetes.
7. Lowers Heart Disease Risk
Heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States. The good news is that breastfeeding strengthens a mother's cardiovascular health.
A study analyzing data from 289,573 women found that those who breastfed for 7-12 months had a 10% lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to women who never breastfed. Breastfeeding for over 12 months reduced cardiovascular disease risk by 27%.
Experts believe that breastfeeding improves cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and glucose metabolism in ways that protect heart health. Breastfeeding may also curb inflammation linked to heart disease.
8. Reduces Risk of Reproductive Cancers
In addition to lowering risk of breast and ovarian cancers, breastfeeding offers protective effects against other reproductive system cancers.
Research shows that breastfeeding for longer durations reduces a woman's risk of developing endometrial cancer and uterine cancer. Breastfeeding for over 18 months cuts endometrial cancer risk in half.
The underlying reasons are likely similar to breast and ovarian cancers. Breastfeeding reduces estrogen exposure as well as ovulation and menstruation, resulting in less proliferation of uterine and endometrial cells.
9. Releases Oxytocin to Promote Bonding
When a baby suckles at the breast, the mother's brain releases a surge of oxytocin, nicknamed the "love hormone." Oxytocin promotes feelings of affection, calm, and closeness with her infant.
Oxytocin released while breastfeeding enhances emotional bonding between mother and child. It may also help new mothers relax, destress, and adjust to their role as a parent.
Human connection is vital for wellbeing, so the enhanced bonding oxytocin provides is a significant mental health benefit of breastfeeding.
10. May Increase IQ
Some research indicates breastfeeding may boost a mother’s intelligence.
A study followed over 17,000 mothers for 30 years after they gave birth. Mothers who breastfed for at least 12 months scored higher on cognitive tests in later life compared to mothers who never breastfed.
This boost in IQ may be because breastfeeding stimulates the growth of neurons and synapse connections in areas of the brain involved in thinking and memory.
However, more research is needed to determine if breastfeeding definitively causes increases in maternal intelligence.
How Long to Breastfeed for Maximum Benefits
Health organizations around the world recommend breastfeeding for at least 6 months, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods for 1 year or longer.
The World Health Organization states breastfeeding should continue for 2 years or more. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises mothers to breastfeed for at least 1 year and thereafter for as long as desired.
While any amount of breastfeeding offers advantages, longer breastfeeding duration provides larger reductions in risks for various diseases. To gain the full spectrum of health benefits, aim to breastfeed for 1 year minimum.
The Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding beyond the first year continues to enrich mothers and babies alike.
For mothers, ongoing breastfeeding maintains reduced risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The longer breastfeeding continues, the lower a mom's chances of developing these conditions.
Extended breastfeeding also provides babies with continued nutrition, immunity, and protection from infectious diseases. Toddlers who breastfeed benefit from brain-boosting nutrition during this critical developmental window.
The composition of breastmilk changes as a child ages to deliver exactly the nutrients a toddler or older child needs. There is no nutritional advantage to switching to cow's milk at one year or any other age.
Tips for Extended Breastfeeding Success
Mothers who wish to continue breastfeeding beyond the first year should:
Follow baby's lead: Let your child determine when to wean based on their own developmental timeline. Avoid putting pressure on when to wean.
Be patient: Breastfeeding an active toddler brings unique challenges. Persistence and patience is key.
Find support: Join groups for moms tandem feeding or breastfeeding older babies. Talk to mothers who've succeeded with extended breastfeeding.
Be flexible: Toddlers' nursing habits differ from infants. Adapt to your child's needs.
Offer solid foods: Introduce nutritious solids around 6 months. But breastmilk remains the ideal milk source.
Nurse on demand: Maintain milk supply and satisfy your child's needs by nursing on demand.
Prepare for criticism: Sadly, some may not understand your choice to breastfeed past one year. Stand firm in doing what's best for you and baby.
The Lasting Health Benefits of Breastfeeding
The scientific evidence is clear: breastfeeding offers lifelong health rewards for mothers. The longer a mom breastfeeds, the greater the benefits.
From cancer protection to weight loss to enhanced bonding, breastfeeding provides mothers with an array of physical and emotional perks.
If you are expecting, planning to breastfeed, or currently nursing, know that you are giving your baby the best start in life while also investing in your own future wellbeing. Committing to breastfeeding could be one of the best health decisions you ever make.
Common Concerns About Extended Breastfeeding
While the benefits are clear, some mothers have reservations about breastfeeding past the first year. Here are some common concerns and how to overcome them:
Concern: My child seems too old to be breastfed.
Response: There is no universally agreed upon age when breastfeeding is no longer appropriate. Many cultures around the world consider breastfeeding for 2-4 years or beyond to be normal. Follow your child's cues.
Concern: Will breastfeeding affect my fertility?
Response: Breastfeeding can suppress ovulation, acting as birth control. However, many women get pregnant while breastfeeding. You may wish to use contraception if not ready for another pregnancy.
Concern: What if my child won't wean?
Response: Don't worry, they will wean eventually. But avoid force weaning too early. Gradual weaning led by the child ensures proper nutrition and bonding.
Concern: Breastfeeding limits my freedom.
Response: It's understandable to want freedom, but with preparation, breastfeeding can fit into any lifestyle. Make time for yourself and take advantage of pumping and storage.
Concern: Doesn't extended breastfeeding harm my breasts?
Response: No, breastfeeding does not cause breast sagging or other damage. In fact, it provides health benefits that preserve your breasts long-term.
Final Tips for Happy Extended Breastfeeding
Remember that breastfeeding is about more than nutrition - it's about comfort, security, and bonding. These emotional needs don't disappear after a certain age.
Older babies may nurse for shorter, less frequent sessions. This is normal as solids become a bigger part of their diet.
Respect your child's weaning timeline. Forcing weaning too early can be traumatic. Watch for signs of readiness.
Older nurslings may be more easily distracted. Find quiet, calm environments for nursing sessions.
Introduce a sippy cup around 6-12 months if desired, but avoid bottles to prevent nipple confusion or refusal.
Eat a healthy diet, drink to thirst, and practice self-care. Happy moms have an easier time nursing older babies!
The benefits of breastfeeding are both numerous and significant. By choosing to breastfeed, mothers invest in the health of their children while also protecting their own health for years to come.
While any amount of breastfeeding is worthwhile, extended breastfeeding provides the greatest advantages. Let your child determine when they are ready to wean.
With the right information and support, breastfeeding beyond infancy can be rewarding for both mothers and babies alike. The health rewards will last a lifetime.