How Breastfeeding Benefits Mothers' Health
The benefits of breast milk for babies are numerous. Lower rates of childhood obesity, decreased incidence of asthma and even better brain development are all linked with drinking more of mother's milk in infancy, and despite decades of research and promising marketing claims, the formula industry has not caught up to mother nature in the milk department. In fact, not breastfeeding after giving birth seems to put women at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many other serious health conditions.
Costs of not nursing
About 85 percent of U.S. women have at least one child, and based on information about the virtues of breast milk for all those babies, most health agencies recommend that when biologically possible and safe women breastfeed infants exclusively for the first six months with the option of introducing complementary foods in addition to breast milk through 12 months.
Mobilizing mothers' fat
Those breastfeeding benefits accrue in part because nursing can start to break down some of the fat that accumulates in women's bodies during pregnancy. At first, some mothers despair for their figures because having children generally leads to thicker midsections and thighs as women's bodies change to nourish a developing fetus and boost stores for feeding the baby once it is born. Although not optimal for long-term health, this extra weight serves an important evolutionary function.
Helping heart health
Breastfeeding helps mothers' cardiovascular health in very specific ways, Schwartz found in her analysis of postmenopausal women.
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The research is still evolving, however, and Stuebe is not sure we have found all of the reasons breastfeeding should be a no-brainer health choice when it is an option. "I think there are going to be many answers," she says. "It's like saying, 'How does exercising improve health?' It's the physiological norm."