By: Mary Scourboutakos

Presently in America breastfeeding rates are sub-par.

While the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding alongside complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond—in the US 79% of mothers initiate breastfeeding, but only 22% exclusively breastfeed to six months and only 27% are still breastfeeding (non-exclusively) at two years postpartum.1 Meanwhile in countries like Sri Lanka, 83.1% of mothers are still breastfeeding their children two years post-partum.2

So the question is…how do we get women in America to breastfeed longer?
Traditionally, when trying to promote breastfeeding, people have focused on the benefits for infants, such as improved cognitive development,3 fewer childhood infections,4 and decreased risk for obesity and chronic disease later in life.5

But when you consider current rates of breastfeeding (see above!), clearly this approach isn’t working. Nevertheless, there may be a presently unexplored way to promote breastfeeding…

Emerging research suggests that in fact, the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother may surpass the benefits of breastfeeding for the infant.6-8
In fact, research has shown that long-term breastfeeding is associated with decreased maternal risk for breast cancer,9-11 ovarian cancer,12, 13 endometrial cancer,14 diabetes,15 heart disease,16 as well as greater postpartum weight-loss,17, 18 and mental health benefits.19, 20

But how long is long? And by how much does risk decrease? In terms of breast cancer, research from China has shown that women who breastfeed for more than 24 months per child cut their risk for breast cancer in half, compared to women who breastfed for only one to six months.10 Furthermore, dose-response curves for risk of diabetes show an inverse relationship with lifetime duration of breastfeeding, which suggests that the longer you breastfeed for, the lower your risk is.15

So, my unsolicited piece of advice for public health agencies is…if you’re trying to improve rates of breastfeeding, never mind touting the benefits for the baby, maybe try promoting the benefits for the Mom!


1.National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Breastfeeding – Report Card. 2014; Available at: 7 February 2016).
2.Ministry of Health Care and Nutrition. Sri Lanka – Demographic and Health Survey. 2006; Available at: (Accessed: 2016 February).
3.Quigley MA, Hockley C, Carson C, Kelly Y, Renfrew MJ, and Sacker A. Breastfeeding is associated with improved child cognitive development: a population-based cohort study. J Pediatr, 2012. 160(1):25-32.
4.Li R, Dee D, Li CM, Hoffman HJ, and Grummer-Strawn LM. Breastfeeding and risk of infections at 6 years. Pediatrics, 2014. 134 Suppl 1:S13-20.
5.Yan J, Liu L, Zhu Y, Huang G, and Wang PP. The association between breastfeeding and childhood obesity: a meta-analysis. BMC Public Health, 2014. 14:1267.
6.Schwarz EB. Infant feeding in America: enough to break a mother’s heart? Breastfeed Med, 2013. 8(5):454-7.
7.Bartick MC, Stuebe AM, Schwarz EB, Luongo C, Reinhold AG, and Foster EM. Cost analysis of maternal disease associated with suboptimal breastfeeding. Obstet Gynecol, 2013. 122(1):111-9.
8.Bartick M and Reinhold A. The burden of suboptimal breastfeeding in the United States: a pediatric cost analysis. Pediatrics, 2010. 125(5):e1048-56.
9.Zhou Y, Chen J, Li Q, Huang W, Lan H, and Jiang H. Association between breastfeeding and breast cancer risk: evidence from a meta-analysis. Breastfeed Med, 2015. 10(3):175-82.
10.Zheng T, Duan L, Liu Y, Zhang B, Wang Y, Chen Y, et al. Lactation reduces breast cancer risk in Shandong Province, China. Am J Epidemiol, 2000. 152(12):1129-35.
11.De Silva M, Senarath U, Gunatilake M, and Lokuhetty D. Prolonged breastfeeding reduces risk of breast cancer in Sri Lankan women: a case-control study. Cancer Epidemiol, 2010. 34(3):267-73.
12.Luan NN, Wu QJ, Gong TT, Vogtmann E, Wang YL, and Lin B. Breastfeeding and ovarian cancer risk: a meta-analysis of epidemiologic studies. Am J Clin Nutr, 2013. 98(4):1020-31.
13.Li DP, Du C, Zhang ZM, Li GX, Yu ZF, Wang X, et al. Breastfeeding and ovarian cancer risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 40 epidemiological studies. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, 2014. 15(12):4829-37.
14.Jordan SJ, Cushing-Haugen KL, Wicklund KG, Doherty JA, and Rossing MA. Breast-feeding and risk of epithelial ovarian cancer. Cancer Causes Control, 2012. 23(6):919-27.
15.Aune D, Norat T, Romundstad P, and Vatten LJ. Breastfeeding and the maternal risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of cohort studies. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis, 2014. 24(2):107-15.
16.Schwarz EB, Ray RM, Stuebe AM, Allison MA, Ness RB, Freiberg MS, et al. Duration of lactation and risk factors for maternal cardiovascular disease. Obstet Gynecol, 2009. 113(5):974-82.
17.Jarlenski MP, Bennett WL, Bleich SN, Barry CL, and Stuart EA. Effects of breastfeeding on postpartum weight loss among U.S. women. Prev Med, 2014. 69:146-50.
18.Baker JL, Gamborg M, Heitmann BL, Lissner L, Sorensen TI, and Rasmussen KM. Breastfeeding reduces postpartum weight retention. Am J Clin Nutr, 2008. 88(6):1543-51.
19.Groer MW. Differences between exclusive breastfeeders, formula-feeders, and controls: a study of stress, mood, and endocrine variables. Biol Res Nurs, 2005. 7(2):106-17.
20.Groer MW and Davis MW. Cytokines, infections, stress, and dysphoric moods in breastfeeders and formula feeders. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs, 2006. 35(5):599-607.
1 reply
  1. Emma Gedge
    Emma Gedge says:

    The reason I spend so much time on blog reading is to see how others value breastfeeding and to get an idea different from the ones I’ve had myself. I’m glad I learned very good ideas in here. Thank you for sharing!


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