Nov. 22, 2005 -- Women who breastfeed may also be lowering their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, new research suggests.
Breastfeeding conveys clear health benefits for babies, and there is mounting evidence that it does the same for moms. The study found that the longer a woman breastfed, the lower her chances were for developing diabetes.
A woman with two children could potentially lower her risk of developing type 2 diabetes by almost a third by following the advice of child health experts and breastfeeding each child for a year, researcher Alison M. Stuebe, MD, tells WebMD.
The study is published in the Nov. 23/30 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
"The nice thing about this is that there is no downside to breastfeeding," says Stuebe, who is an ob-gyn and maternal medicine researcher at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. "It is clearly good for babies, and this study and others suggest that it is good for moms, too."
Lactation has also been shown to improve blood sugar control, which drives diabetes risk. But the long-term impact of breastfeeding on diabetes risk has not been known.
In the newly published research, Stuebe and colleagues at Harvard Medical School's Brigham and Women's Hospital analyzed data on close to 160,000 female nurses enrolled in two ongoing health studies. All of the women had provided information on their breastfeeding history, and roughly 6,200 developed type 2 diabetes.
After controlling for obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and other type 2 diabetes risk factors, having breastfed within the past 15 years was found to be strongly protective against the disease. The longer a woman breastfed the stronger the protection. But the benefits did not appear to extend to older women whose last birth was more than 15 years past. Women with a history of gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) had an increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes. However, lactation did not have an effect on this risk.
The researchers conclude that other clinical studies are needed to confirm the findings and to better understand why lactation may help protect against diabetes.
Getting Ob-Gyns on Board
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed for at least a year but only a small percentage of new mothers in the U.S. actually follows the advice.
One problem, Stuebe says, is that ob-gyns have not been as aggressive in promoting the message as pediatricians have.
"I think this drives home how important it is for all health care providers to support breastfeeding," she says. "It is clear that women listen to their obstetricians but not all ob-gyns discuss breastfeeding with their patients."
University of Chicago pediatrics professor Lawrence M. Gartner, MD, agrees. Gartner chaired the AAP committee that updated the group's breastfeeding guidelines earlier this year.
"It is clear that ob-gyns could have an enormous impact on breastfeeding, but, in general, I don't think they are doing as much as they could be doing to promote it," he tells WebMD.
State University of New York obstetrics and gynecology professor Richard H. Aubry, MD, acknowledges that more could be done. But he also notes that the nation's largest group of women's health doctors has taken a strong stand in favor of breastfeeding.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology recommends that women breastfeed their babies exclusively for at least six months.
"We do try to make this point, but there is a reluctance to beat women over the head with it," he tells WebMD. "I do agree, though, that for the benefit of both the baby and the mother we may need to be more aggressive with this message."