Breastfeedingis not only beneficial for babies but it could prevent women suffering a stroke or developing heart disease in later life, scientists have concluded.
Previous studies have suggested that mothers get short-term health benefits from breastfeeding, such as weight loss and lower cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels after pregnancy, but there have been no research into the long-term impact.
When researchers at Oxford University and the Chinese Academy for Medical Sciences studied nearly 300,000 middle-aged women for eight years, they discovered that those who had breast fed were nine per cent less likely to develop heart disease and eight per cent less less likely to suffer a stroke.
And the health benefits increased the longer they had breast fed their children. Women who put off the bottle until two years old lowered their risk of heart disease by 18 per cent, and stroke 17 per cent. For every additional six months after that the risk lowered by an extra four per cent and three per cent respectively.
Researchers say that breastfeeding may help restore a woman’s fat clearing systems after the birth.
“Although we cannot establish the causal effects, the health benefits to the mother from breastfeeding may be explained by a faster “reset” of the mother’s metabolism after pregnancy,” said Dr Sanne Peters, research fellow at Oxford University.
“Pregnancy changes a woman’s metabolism dramatically as she stores fat to provide the energy necessary for her baby’s growth and for breastfeeding once the baby is born. Breastfeeding could eliminate the stored fat faster and more completely.”
British women have the some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world with just one in 200 women (0.5 per cent) still breastfeeding a year after becoming mothers. The figure is 23 per cent in Germany and 27 per cent in the United States.
The World Health Organisation recommends that all babies are breastfed for up to two years or longer
Only around two per cent of women is unable to lactate, and experts believe social reasons, such as the desire for life to return to normal after the birth, is behind the disparity. More than half of British babies have had some formula by the end of their first week, according to the University of Swansea. It is estimated that increasing breast feeding rates could save the NHS around £40 million a year.
Although the authors cautioned that women who breastfeed may be more likely to engage in other beneficial health behaviors that lower their risk of cardiovascular disease compared to women who do not breastfeed, they said the findings provide more evidence of the long-term benefits for both mother and child.
“The findings should encourage more widespread breastfeeding for the benefit of the mother as well as the child,” said Dr Zhengming Chen, Professor of Epidemiology, at Oxford University.
“The study provides support for the World Health Organization’s recommendation that mothers should breastfeed their babies exclusively for their first six months of life.”
The research was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.