While it is well-known that breastfeeding helps to protect growing infants from numerous short-term and chronic illnesses, it is perhaps less well-known that breastfeeding plays a protective role in a mother’s health.

A mother’s decision to breastfeed may be based on her desire to provide for her baby’s health, but she is also doing her own body a favour.

Lactation, or the production of breast milk, is a continuation of the natural physiological process, which began with conception and pregnancy.

Most mothers who exclusively breastfeed their babies are free of menstrual periods for at least the first six months; this is called lactational amenorrhea.

Researchers believe that extended periods of lactational amenorrhea may explain the lower rates of ovarian, uterine, and breast cancer found in women who breastfeed.

The absence of the repeated hormonal ups and downs of regular menstrual cycles may leave the breasts and reproductive organs less vulnerable to cancer. 

Protection against breast cancer is related to the duration of breastfeeding, with the greatest risk reduction seen in mothers whose total amount of breastfeeding covers several years, across one or more children.

A comprehensive worldwide study on the role of breastfeeding in breast cancer risk concluded that the higher incidence of breast cancer in the developed countries (e.g., the US and Western Europe) compared to developing countries in Africa and Asia is largely due to the lack of breastfeeding or the short duration of breastfeeding typical in developed countries.

A recent study found that women who had two or more children faced a 50 per cent increased risk of hormone receptor-negative breast cancer, one of the most aggressive and toughest types of cancer to treat.

However, this higher risk was only present in women who did not breastfeed.

Additionally, in women with a history of breast cancer in their immediate family, one study found that women who had breastfed had a 59 per cent lower risk of breast cancer than women who had not, making their risk comparable to that of women without a family history of the cancer.

While pregnancy increases a woman’s risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, breastfeeding helps cancel out this risk, with the greatest benefit attributed to longer durations of breastfeeding.

Mothers who do not breastfeed have a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of risk factors linked to both diabetes and heart disease, including elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance, and belly fat.

Breastfeeding for as little as a month or two can convey some benefit, but not as much as longer lactation.

In one study, breastfeeding for longer than nine months was associated with a 56 per cent reduction in risk for developing metabolic syndrome.

For mothers who suffer from gestational diabetes during pregnancy and are, thus, significantly more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, breastfeeding for longer than nine months reduced their risk by 86 per cent. 

While paediatricians and health organizations recommend that mothers breastfeed for the sake of their children’s health, the growing body of medical evidence suggests it is time to more actively promote breastfeeding for women’s health as well.