You probably know that breastfeeding can give your baby a healthy start. But that’s not the only health benefit. It also can lower your breast cancer risk.
“Research shows mothers who breastfeed lower their risk of pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer. And, breastfeeding longer than the recommended six months can provide additional protection,” says Rachel King, a health education specialist in MD Anderson’s Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center.
Most women who breastfeed experience hormonal changes during lactation that delay their menstrual periods. This reduces a woman’s lifetime exposure to hormones like estrogen, which can promote breast cancer cell growth.
In addition, during pregnancy and breastfeeding, you shed breast tissue. “This shedding can help remove cells with potential DNA damage, thus helping to reduce your chances of developing breast cancer,” King says.
Breastfeeding also can help lower your ovarian cancer risk by preventing ovulation. And the less you ovulate, the less exposure to estrogen and abnormal cells that could become cancer.
Below, our experts share what you need to know about breastfeeding and tips for support.
Breastfeed for at least six months
To reap the health perks of breastfeeding, you should do it exclusively for at least six months, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research and World Health Organization. This means your baby receives only breast milk – no water, other liquids or solids. Evidence shows that the health benefits and your cancer risk reduction become significant at six months and beyond. And, breast milk provides all the energy and nutrients your baby needs during this time to develop and stay healthy.
After six months, breast milk provides at least half of your child’s nutritional needs. So, you can gradually introduce foods, such as baby cereal, fruits and vegetables, but you should continue to breastfeed. “Breastfeeding past six months is not only beneficial for your child’s health, but the longer you do it, the more protection you receive against breast and ovarian cancers,” says Sally Scroggs, dietitian and health education manager in MD Anderson’s Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center.
In a study by the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, researchers found that for every 12 months a woman breastfed, her risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3%. The study compared mothers who breastfed to those who didn’t. It also found the 12-month time period could be with either one child or as the total for several children.
Furthermore, Australian researchers found that women who breastfed for more than 13 months were 63% less likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who breastfed for less than seven months. And, women who breastfed multiple children for over 31 months could reduce their ovarian cancer risk by up to 91% compared to women who breastfed for under 10 months.
Breastfeeding helps protect your child from cancer
It’s imperative that you know breastfeeding not only reduces your chances for developing cancer, but also your child’s. “Evidence shows that it can help prevent your child from being overweight or obese later in life,” Scroggs says. “Being obese puts a person at risk for many cancers. This includes pancreatic, breast (postmenopausal),endometrial, esophageal, rectal and kidney cancers.”
Breastfeeding also helps strengthen your child’s immune system. Your antibodies pass from your milk to your child. This helps lower your child’s risks of ear infections, as well as respiratory and digestive system problems. Plus, research indicates the longer a child is breastfed, the lower his or her chances of developing allergies.
Seek a lactation consultant
Despite all the health perks, breastfeeding isn’t easy. If you’re considering it or having trouble, get help from a lactation consultant, or a professional breastfeeding specialist. Most work in hospitals or health programs. So, you can ask the hospital where you plan to deliver to send a consultant to your room shortly after your baby is born. Or, your health care provider or child’s pediatrician can help you find one near you.