Breastfeeding for six months or more slashed a woman’s risk for developing type 2 diabetes by 47 percent over the next decades, according to a recent, headline-grabbing Kaiser Permanente study of 1,238 black and Caucasian women. For women who nursed their new babies for six months or less, diabetes risk was 25% lower compared to women who did not breastfeed at all.
Moms got this powerful breastfeeding “bonus” even if they were at higher risk for eventually developing diabetes due to their weight, family history, lifestyle, race, pre-pregnancy blood sugar levels or gestational diabetes during pregnancy, lead study author Erica P Gunderson, PhD, MS, MPH, senior research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, told On Track Diabetes.
The study followed women in their 20s and 30s who became pregnant while participating in a National Institutes of Health-sponsored study called Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA). The women did not have diabetes at the start. Their health was tracked for 30 years.
Among women who did not breastfeed, 8% developed diabetes—compared to about 6% who nursed for up to six months and 4% who nursed for six months or longer. Among women in the study with gestational diabetes (whose long-term diabetes risk is seven times higher than it is for women without GD), about 32% who didn’t breastfeed developed diabetes compared to 10-16% who did.
Nursing may lower a woman’s long-term risk for diabetes in several ways. “During lactation, fasting blood insulin and glucose levels are lower. Both glucose [blood sugar] and lipids [blood fats] are transferred from the circulation into the breast to produce milk,” Dr. Gunderson says. This may lighten the workload of pancreatic beta cells, which produce insulin. In addition prolactin, the primary hormone that regulates breastmilk production, may have beneficial effects for the health of insulin-producing cells. Nursing also uses up some fat stored in fat cells, though the researchers found that weight loss after pregnancy didn’t explain lower diabetes risk later on.
Despite the health benefits for babies and for their mothers, breastfeeding doesn’t receive the attention and support it deserves in the U.S., Dr. Gunderson says. While the American Academy of Pediatrics and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend women breastfeed for one year, just 55% of new moms nurse for six months and just 31% breastfeed for 12 months.
‘“The main obstacle is the lack of paid maternity leave for several months which is needed to gain the full health benefits of breastfeeding,” she notes. “The support of breastfeeding is highly cost-effective in terms of health care dollars according to recent publications. To enable women to follow the breastfeeding recommendations of professional health organizations, social policy needs to change to allow women longer time with their infants during the first year of life.”
Women can take steps during pregnancy to put together the knowledge, support and equipment (such as a breast pump) they may need for successful breastfeeding. “Women should ask their healthcare provider during early pregnancy for a referral to a class for prenatal care and breastfeeding education,” Dr. Gunderson suggests. “They should also ask the provider to recommend a lactation consultant/nurse who specializes in lactation support and education before delivery, and before problems arise. A lactation educator or consultant should also be available during the hospital post-delivery stay, and mothers should request this specialist to visit them while they are in the hospital.”
Do whatever you can—even a few months of breastfeeding has benefits for babies and for moms, notes Amy Hess-Fischl , MS, RD, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE, of the Kovler Diabetes Center in Chicago. “In our country breastfeeding is so underutilized and it is a shame,” she says. “It aids in weight loss after delivery and it is the BEST source of nutrients for the baby. Now that it can help with reducing risk for diabetes for women—for goodness sake, this is a no-brainer! Even if women can commit for the first few months it is helpful. And it’s crucial for healthcare professionals to share this message, too.”