August 2012 | Issue 73
Breastfeeding Reduces Cancer Risk for Moms and Babies
You may know breastfeeding is healthy for a baby, but you can add cancer protection to the list of health benefits – for the mother as well as her baby.
August 1 marks the start of the 20th World Breastfeeding Week, and to highlight the event, we’re focusing on one health benefit that has only emerged over the last few years: breastfeeding may help protect a mother and her child against developing cancer years later.
AICR’s expert report and its updates concluded that breastfeeding may help protect mothers from breast cancer. The research linking lactation to lower cancer risk applied to both pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer.
It also protects babies from gaining excess body fat, which can lead to their being obese in adult life. Among adults, excess body fat links to increased risk of seven different cancers, including cancers of the kidney, colon and post-menopausal breast.
Experts do not yet know exactly how breastfeeding offers cancer protection. But there are several possible mechanisms, which may work together.
- Breastfeeding may delay the return of a new mother’s menstrual cycle. Women who experience fewer menstrual cycles over their lifetime tend to have lower risk for breast cancer.
- Breastfeeding may lower the levels of hormones in the mother’s body that are linked to increased risk of breast cancer.
- At the end of breastfeeding, the body gets rid of any cells in the breast that may have DNA damage. This reduces the risk of breast cancer developing in the future.
- Research shows that babies who are breastfed are less likely to consume too many calories than babies fed infant formula. This means the baby is less likely to become overweight or obese as they grow older.
- Because breastfed babies are not encouraged to “finish the bottle,” they may learn to self-regulate their calorie intake in ways more closely suited to their body’s needs.
- Substances that pass from mother to baby – such as the appetite-regulating hormone leptin – may play a role in reducing cancer risk.
Given the evidence, AICR recommends mothers breastfeed exclusively for up to six months and then add other liquids and foods. The recommendation follows the World Health Organization recommendation, who is sponsoring World Breastfeeding Week. One of the other benefits of breastfeeding is that mother's milk can protect babies against illness and infections.
There are many reasons mothers may not breastfeed. For those moms, there are other lifestyle choices about diet, weight and being active that will also lower risk for themselves and their baby. View the full list of AICR's Recommendations.