Breastfeeding can reduce maternal, child mortality in the U.S., study finds

(Credit: Associated Press/File photo)

Breastfeeding, long considered solely in terms of children’s health, has a much larger impact on women’s health than previously thought, according to a new study.

Researchers found that suboptimal breastfeeding has a substantial impact on both maternal and pediatric health outcomes and costs. Supporting women to help them meet optimal breastfeeding targets – defined as exclusive for the first six months and continued as foods are introduced to the the first birthday – would prevent deaths in mothers and children.

“We should encourage women to breastfeed because it supports women’s health, it is not just about being better mothers, it is to help women take care of themselves,” Melissa Bartick, an internist at Harvard Medical School and one of the researchers involved with the study, told Humanosphere.

Modeling disease outcomes and associated costs along with two breastfeeding scenarios, researchers found that for every 597 mothers who optimally breastfeed, the number of deaths in mothers and children drops by one. And it takes fewer numbers to reduce the number of diabetes, heart attacks and maternal hypertension cases.

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013, 81.1 percent of mothers started breastfeeding, 51.8 percent were breastfeeding at six months and 30.7 percent were breastfeeding at 12 months. The target goal for the U.S., according to the researchers, is that 90 percent of women would breastfeed for 12 months. It takes into account that there are some women who for varying reasons are unable to breastfeed or meet the recommendations.

This all means that suboptimal breastfeeding is a major problem in the U.S. It may be a major reason why the U.S. ranks 26 of 29 countries in infant mortality in countries in the world’s wealthiest countries. Save the Children’s annual index ranking the best place to be a mother and child places the U.S. at number 33 – the result of relatively higher child and maternal mortality rates.

This research links breastfeeding with saving lives. But getting more women to breastfeed means improving support and information for mothers.

Surveys show that roughly 60 percent of women are not meeting their own breastfeeding goals, Bartick said. Mothers want to do it, and doctors can play a major role. She pointed to the fact that there is evidence showing doctors have a strong positive influence on pregnant women for breastfeeding. However, breastfeeding is a topic not often discussed between pregnant women and their medical providers.

“This isn’t pressuring women to breastfeed, it is helping them do what they want to do. It is more about support,” said Bartick.

She recognizes that this is a topic that causes a lot of strong reactions. Some breastfeeding proponents shame mothers so suboptimal breastfeeding is seen as a failure of the mother, rather than a matter of improper support or uncontrollable circumstances. Women shouldn’t be harassed for choosing not to breastfeed after being presented with all the facts, Bartick said.

She hopes the findings shift the conversation to focus on maternal health: Women help themselves when they meet their own breastfeeding goals.

“I think it is time we reframe it as a women’s health issue. We need to do what is right for women to support their health,” said Bartick. “It shouldn’t be about who is a better mother. It is about how we can live longer and healthier lives.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Will Clein

    I am a little concerned by the title of this article. While I agree, there is a clear association between breastfeeding and a reduction in both maternal and child mortality, the study does not provide evidence that breastfeeding itself is the cause in reduction of mortality. In fact, it is more likely a congruence of factors. While I understand that “Breastfeeding Associated with Reduction in…” is less attention-grabbing than “Breastfeeding Can Reduce…”, it is certainly more consistent with the analysis provided by the study.