Chloe Jo Davis is a vocal advocate for breastfeeding.
The Wilton, Conn.-based writer breastfed her three sons for years to make sure they reaped all of the benefits associated with the practice.
"Breastfeeding helps build up kids' immune system and keeps colds, virus, ear infection and stomach bugs at bay, and this is more important today than ever before with the spread of COVID-19," said Davis, who counsels moms on breastfeeding via an online platform.
Now a new study of close to 1.2 million women shows that Davis and other moms who breastfeed may reap some big time health benefits of their own.
Compared to women who had babies but never breastfed, mothers who breastfed for any period of time were less likely to develop heart disease, have a stroke or die from heart disease during 10 years of follow-up.
Earlier studies have found that women who breastfed are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes and some cancers, but less has been known about how breastfeeding affects a woman's heart.
The new study wasn't designed to say exactly how breastfeeding protects the heart, but researchers have some ideas.
"Breastfeeding could facilitate a more rapid weight loss after delivery, and this may be beneficial, as it is known that elevated weight is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease," said study author Lena Tschiderer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Medical University of Innsbruck, in Austria.
What's more, breastfeeding may help reset a woman's metabolism.
"This includes resetting factors that are also associated with an increased cardiovascular risk," Tschiderer said.
For the study, her team analyzed information on close to 1.2 million women in eight studies conducted between 1986 and 2009 across several countries. They looked at how long women breastfed, how many children they had, their age at first birth, and whether they had a heart attack or a stroke during follow-up.
Fully 82% breastfed at some point, according to the report. These women were 11% less likely to develop heart disease; 12% less likely to have a stroke; and 17% less likely to die from heart disease during 10 years of follow-up when compared to mothers who never breastfed, the investigators found.
These benefits held for women who breastfed for any length of time and seemed to be even greater for those who breastfed for up to one year. The study can't say whether breastfeeding for even longer periods is more beneficial because there weren't enough women in the study who breastfed for more than two years.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for around the first 6 months of life.
The new study was published online Jan. 11 in a special pregnancy issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association.
"This study was done in a very scientifically rigorous manner, and that's important as it means we can have pretty good confidence that the results are true," said Dr. Shelley Miyamoto. She is chair of the heart association's Council on Lifelong Congenital Heart Disease and Heart Health. Miyamoto is also director of the cardiomyopathy program at the Children's Hospital Colorado, in Aurora.
"If you breastfed for any period of time, there is some benefit to your heart, and there is progressive risk reduction for up to one year," said Miyamoto, who was not involved in the new study.
It's time to make it easier for women to breastfeed, she said.
"We really need to raise awareness and educate moms and health care providers about the benefits of breastfeeding," Miyamoto said. "New mothers need to think about this before giving birth to help ensure access to a lactation consult where they give birth."
She said it's also important for women to talk to their employers about creating breastfeeding-friendly environments.
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