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Breastfeeding isn’t only good for babies. It can also reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Eleanor Bimla Schwarz believes doctors –and mothers-to-be– are making a big mistake if they think pregnancy and childbirth is a nine-month journey that ends in the delivery room.
The next months are critical too, she says, because that’s when both mother and baby build a foundation for long-term health through breastfeeding. The window of opportunity is small, she says. Once you’ve missed it, there’s nothing you can do.
Schwarz, professor of medicine at the University of California at Davis, took the stage at TEDMED 2014 this week in the District of Columbia to call for a transformation in the way doctors and women view breast-feeding.
Doctors have long recognized that breastfeeding benefits babies by building up their immune systems and reducing the risk of allergies and respiratory illness. Mounting evidence suggests that breastfeeding babies also protects mothers by reducing their risk of heart disease –the leading killer of women.
Related: The Facts on Heart Disease
“It’s a powerful message,” says Kristin Carman, vice president for health policy research at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit think tank in the District of Columbia. “It’s not just about baby’s health; it’s about your health, too.”
Carman says doctors who tell new mothers they’re likely to reduce their risk of illness by breastfeeding are also more likely to motivate them to come in for postpartum visits to get motherhood off to a healthy start.
“It’s the trifecta, a win-win-win for mother, baby, and doctor,” she says. “That’s why it’s such a powerful concept.”
Schwarz proposed the new approach at TEDMED— an annual conference held this year in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco that focuses on innovation through technology, entertainment and design.
Schwarz was lead investigator in a study that examined the effect of breast-feeding on heart disease risks in nearly 140,000 women. The women were enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative, a study designed to tease out the influence of family history, lifestyle and countless other factors on a woman’s health risks. Each woman Schwarz studied had at least one healthy baby, and all had passed through their reproductive years. The study, published in 2009, found that the longer that women breastfed, the more they lowered their risk of heart disease.
Women who breast-fed for seven to 12 months reduced other risks, too, including high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol – regardless of race, income, education and other socioeconomic factors.
Schwarz also carried out a study of 2,233 women in a managed care plan, showing that women who breastfed their babies for less than one month had a higher risk of diabetes.
Despite the benefits of breastfeeding, Schwarz says, only 8 percent of hospitals adequately promote it. The World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund have outlined steps to promote breastfeeding through the “Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative” at participating hospitals. Steps include starting breastfeeding within an hour after giving birth and allowing moms and babies to remain together 24 hours a day.
“It’s much easier to breastfeed a baby when the baby stays in its mother’s room,” Schwarz says.
Breastfeeding is a community health issue, Schwarz says. “These ‘baby- friendly’ steps are key to saving thousands of mothers from heart disease,” she says.