While breastfeeding can be painful, tiring, and for some new moms, logistically or physically impossible, most experts agree that breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed newborns up to 6 months of age.
That’s because it helps protect them from infections and allergies, provides the precise ratio of nutrients their growing bodies need, and it may even reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Babies aren’t the only ones who benefit from breastfeeding, which appears to deliver some pretty stellar side effects to women who do it, according to research on disease outcomes among breastfeeders, which was recently published in the journal Maternal & Child Nutrition.
So, here are all the awesome ways breastfeeding is good for Y-O-U as a human, not just as a mom:
1. It reduces your risk of breast cancer. Lactation helps the breast tissue fully mature but when it never gets the chance to do so, there’s a greater increase in risk for abnormal, cancerous growths within those tissues, according to the authors of the Maternal & Child Nutrition study. It’s why every year you breastfeed reduces the risk of breast cancer by 4.3 percent, with a 7 percent lower risk for every child you have.
2. It wards off ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding suppresses ovulation, which reduces the risk of ovarian cancer, according to Melissa Bartick, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lead author of the Maternal & Child Nutrition study. But researchers have also found that breastfeeders end up with higher levels of special antibodies to a protein found in ovarian cancer cells. This means breastfeeding appears to build up your resistance to the disease, sort of like an immunization.
3. It burns calories like whoa. Obviously, breast milk doesn’t come out of nowhere; behind the scenes, your body actually puts a whole lot of effort into filling up your breasts with nutrient-rich milk, burning upward of 500 calories a day in the process, according to ACOG. It also improves your glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, which is to say it helps your body turn food into fuel. This can spark the loss of baby weight.
4. It lowers your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Research shows that breastfeeding increases insulin sensitivity and improves glucose metabolism in the mother, benefits that ultimately reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, particularly among women who develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research.
5. It reduces your risk of high blood pressure. The same hormones your body uses to make milk (that’d be oxytocin and prolactin, for the record) have a secret superpower: They also lower your blood pressure, according to 2012 research conducted by researchers at Hirosaki University Graduate School of Health Sciences.
6. It slashes your risk of having a heart attack. "Breastfeeding affects women’s hormones and body fat in ways that keep the heart healthy, likely by ’resetting’ her body after pregnancy to restore her metabolic and cardiac health," Dr. Bartick says. There’s no pill you can pop to do that.
7. It shrinks your baby belly. Breastfeeding releases a hormone called oxytocin that causes the uterus, which gets stretched out during pregnancy, to return to its normal size more quickly. This perk can also put the kibosh on bleeding after birth, according to ACOG.
8. It saves you all the money. Breast milk is free, but food isn’t, and the cost of formula can amount to more than $1,700 during a baby’s first 12 months of life, according to some estimates. Some moms report spending as much as $100 per week on special formulas. It all depends on how much the baby eats and which formula brand agrees with them.
9. It can reduce post-C-section pain. Researchers presenting at the 2017 Euroanaesthesia Congress in Geneva found that moms who deliver via C-section, then breastfeed for at least two months thereafter, are three times less likely to experience persistent pain at the surgical site than women who breastfeed for shorter periods of time. That's a good thing, considering about 1 in 5 C-section patients experience chronic pain lasting for more than three months — the last thing you need after surgery, which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on who you ask.
10. It may protect you from postpartum depression. Women who breastfeed are less likely to be depressed than mothers who can’t. However, "it’s not clear which comes first, breastfeeding difficulties, or depressed mood," says Alison Stuebe, MD, assistant professor of maternal fetal medicine at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. What experts do know is that breastfeeding releases oxytocin to help move milk out of the breast, reduce stress levels, and promote bonding — all good things for both moms and babies. Meanwhile, low oxytocin levels are linked to depression and can be a symptom of breastfeeding difficulties.
11. It may help you sidestep other chronic diseases down the road. While women have been breastfeeding since the beginning of time, scientists haven’t been studying its benefits for quite as long. Links to lower risk of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are possible, according to Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, M.D., internist at the department of medicine at UC Davis Medical Center, and co-author of the Maternal & Child Nutrition study. But that’d just be an added bonus.