Breastfeeding can deliver long-term heart benefits to both mother and child, a new statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) says.
The immune systems of newborns and infants can be strengthened by breast milk, which has long been acknowledged as an ideal nutrient during those first months of life.
But scientists also discovered recently that women who breastfed at least once during their lives had a 17% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who never did. Women who breastfed were 12% less likely to have a stroke, 14% less likely to have heart disease, and 11% less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases over the course of an average 10-year follow-up period. The analysis included health information for almost 1.2 million women from eight studies carried out in Australia, China, Norway, Japan, the United States, and one multinational study between 1986 and 2009.
Heart benefits have already been seen in children who were breastfed. A study published in 2021 found that babies who drank breastmilk even for a short period of time had lower blood pressure at the age of 3 compared to children who never had breast milk. No matter how long the toddlers were breastfed or whether they also received other complementary nutrition and foods, the blood pressure was lower in the breastfed toddlers.
“There's growing evidence that suggests breastfeeding can play an important role in lowering cardiovascular disease risks. We know that cardiovascular disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, can start in childhood, so giving a baby breast milk even for a few days in infancy is a good start to a heart-healthy life,” said Dr. Maria Avila. She is an assistant professor of cardiology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, N.Y.
“There have been a number of studies that show breastfeeding can reduce a woman's risk of heart disease and stroke. People who breastfeed their babies are taking steps to improve their own heart health, as well, so it's definitely an option to strongly consider,” Avila added in an AHA news release.
The AHA advises mothers to breastfeed their infants for 12 months, transferring to other additional sources of nutrition starting at around 4 to 6 months of age, to ensure the diet contains enough micronutrients.
It's acceptable for not all new parents to be able or want to breastfeed, Avila said, but infants can also benefit from getting those crucial nutrients by expressing breast milk or even using donated breast milk and giving it to them in a bottle. Avila also suggested using iron-fortified infant formula if none of those choices are options.
“Having a newborn can be a stressful time for any parent, and not being able to breastfeed your baby or having a fussy baby who doesn't want to breastfeed could add to, so know you have options," Avila said.
"The most important thing a parent can do for their child is to give them every early start at a heart-healthy life, and that can begin even before conception and with good prenatal care to help reduce their own cardiovascular risks as much as possible,” Avila advised.
“Along with eating right, staying active and managing blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and other health conditions, real health includes keeping both your body and your mind fit. Make sure you practice self-care and ask for help from your partner, family or other support groups. Enjoy this special time in your family's life because it really does go by quickly,” she added.
The Cleveland Clinic offers further details on the benefits of breastfeeding for both baby and mother.
SOURCE: American Heart Association, news release, Aug. 23, 2022