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Breastfeeding Longer May Lower Risk of Breast Cancer

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

A new study published in The Journal of Clinical Nursing reveals that mothers who breast feed their babies longer than 6 months may receive protection against breast cancer. The authors reviewed over 500 breast feeding mothers (smokers and non-smokers) who developed breast cancer. Non-smoking mothers who breast fed longer than 6 months got the cancer about 10 years later than non-smoking mothers who breastfed for  3-6 months or not at all. If mothers smoked, however, breast feeding seemed to have less impact on when they got cancer. This may be due to the fact that smoking cigarettes could override the cancer protective qualities of breast feeding.

We have known for a long time that breast milk is superior to formula for babies. For starters, it helps babies’ immune systems, promotes bonding between mothers and babies, and has even shown to lower depression in mothers. This study gives us one more very good reason to encourage moms to breast feed as long as they can.

When mothers bring their newborns to me for checkups, we always talk about feeding and I always encourage mothers to breast feed.  But before we talk about feeding, I ask mothers how they are doing.

Are they getting any sleep? Are their husbands, family members or friends helping them? When do they have to go back to work?  I feel that it is important to hear from mothers because often they are exhausted and feel they have no control over their lives. And—they are given far more “helpful instruction” from parents and friends than they are heard by those folks. So we need to take time and really listen to how moms are doing.

THE LAST THING I WANT TO DO IS MAKE A MOTHER FEEL THAT SHE HAS NO CHOICE OVER HOW SHE PARENTS (AND THIS INCLUDES HOW SHE FEEDS HER BABY).

Then, when we discuss feeding, of course, I ask mothers if they are breast feeding or using formula.  I try to stay open because most are anxious about being good moms, and they feel that breast feeding is part of  this.

But many feel torn because they feel that unless they breast feed on demand for months on end, they are not being good mothers. This isn’t true and I want to be sensitive to this. They have told me that they feel pressure to breast feed and that if they use a bottle (even with breast milk in it) or add a bit of formula, then they aren’t being good mothers. Again, this isn’t true.

Is breast feeding best? Of course; but if for many reasons a mother chooses not to breast feed on demand for a year, this does not mean that she is a bad mother. She may need to supplement because she has three children who demand much of her time or because she must return to work early. I have seen mothers who feel guilty because they stopped breast feeding because they had to take medications for a life-threatening illness. How ridiculous is it to think that getting breast milk trumps having a mother live longer?

So while we always advocate for mothers to breast feed and help them if they have difficulty, it is equally important to make sure that mothers who choose not to exclusively breast feed not be made to feel ashamed.

AFTER ALL, A LOT MORE THAN JUST BREAST MILK GOES INTO BEING A GREAT MOM.

But for those who can breast feed, I hope that you stick with it as long as you can—at least longer than 6 months. Because it may help protect you from early breast cancer.

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