Six months breastfeeding has benefits for both mum and baby

The benefits of breastfeeding for a baby are well-known, but it might be equally beneficial for the parent, assuming the practice is continued for at least 6 months after birth.

Research groups looking at the impacts of breastfeeding on pregnant women are increasingly finding breastfeeding has positive, both-way outcomes, including in supporting postpartum weight management and cardiovascular health.

The WHO and many domestic health authorities recommend exclusive skin-to-skin breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life, including within the first hour after birth. After 6 months, the practice is also encouraged non-exclusively – meaning either bottle feeding or mixed food can be introduced – for at least up to the second year of life.

Breastfeeding and access to colostrum – first milk – almost as soon as they’re born gives babies a unique mix of essential nutrients and tailor-made antibodies to kick-start their lives.

WHO data also suggest that breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests and are less prone to being overweight or developing diabetes in later life.

Mother breastfeeding her baby on the sofa.
Credit: Antonio Hugo Photo via Getty Images

“Breastfeeding is the very best nutrition for young children,” says Professor Annette Briley, a clinical academic with a background in nursing and midwifery at Flinders University and Guy’s and Saint Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in the UK.

Briley’s comments were made at a Cosmos Science City panel held during World Breastfeeding Week, discussing research in the field and its community impact.

“Women should breastfeed for a minimum of 6 months, and then gradually introduce other food, but continue breastfeeding for as long as possible, preferably up to the [child’s] age of two.”

Skin-to-skin feeding has cardio benefits after three years

But the benefits of breastfeeding appear to benefit the birthing parent as well.

A recent study between the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and Lyell McEwen Hospital found women who breastfed for at least 6 months – whether exclusively or non-exclusively – had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure than those who didn’t.

A subgroup of the study, which looked at mothers who had at least one complication during pregnancy, found those who breastfed for six months also had significantly lower blood pressure, as well as higher HDL – or ‘good’ – cholesterol in three years postpartum.

“We found that if women with at least one major pregnancy complication – like preeclampsia, gestational hypertension and gestational diabetes – breastfed for at least six months, they had significantly lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol profile and lower insulin compared to those who did not breastfeed for at least six months,” says the study’s lead author Dr Maleesa Pathirana, from Adelaide University.

“These findings indicate an overall improvement in cardiovascular health.”

And it appears that within three years of birth, those who met the six-month minimum also returned lower measurements for body mass index and waist circumference than those who didn’t.

In the UK, Briley performed a similar study as part of the UK Pregnancies Better Eating and Activity Trial (UPBEAT) investigating the effects of breastfeeding on heavier women – that is, those whose body mass indices were in the overweight or obese ranges.

Just as the South Australian studies found six months of the practice delivered weight management benefits, the UK trials found particular benefits in women, as well as infants.

“Women who had breastfed for six months, or were still breastfeeding at six months postnatally, even if it was only just once a day, they tended to retain 0.08kg – so just 80 grams heavier than their pre-pregnancy weight,” Briley says.

“Whereas women who hadn’t breastfed at all, or who had breastfed for less than 4 months, were just under 2 kilograms heavier.

“We know women tend to put on weight in between pregnancy and that […] heavier weight is associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes.

“As healthcare professionals, as friends and family members [for] people who are heavier, we need to be absolutely encouraging them to breastfeed [and] providing them the space to do that without the social stigma.

“Maybe as midwives and other health care professionals working with pregnant women, we should be looking at different strategies to encourage heavier women to breastfeed…for at least six months.”

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