Women's Health

The surprising truth: Breastfeeding for your health and your newborn's

Mother in tan dress kissing her baby


By Elizabeth Lucal, MD, System Vice Chair of Women’s Health Services, Nuvance Health

Milk’s mysteries unveiled

Who doesn’t like butter? Or whipped cream? How about ice cream? Hollandaise sauce over vegetables? What all these dishes have in common is the fatty richness of milk. This amazing liquid is not only great when treats are desired, but it serves a far more important purpose. Each species of mammal creates its own milk that is specific to the development of its offspring. Humans included.


Despite all of humanity’s advances in science and medicine, there is no manmade substitute to replace the benefits of human milk for our young. From brain development to the prevention of ear infections and diseases such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, human breast milk truly provides our children with a great treat and a great start.


But what happens to a woman’s body when she can’t or opts not to breastfeed? A better question may be: After all the prep work the body does to ready itself to feed its newborn, where does all that human “butter” go?


Learn more about breastfeeding FAQs.


What happens when you don’t breastfeed?

Breast milk does not just develop when the newborn arrives. The breast and the human body are preparing well before the delivery. So, if a woman gives birth and then either cannot or chooses not to breastfeed, what happens to the cholesterol-rich and fat-rich milk her body has been creating?


The answer may seem obvious, but it is rarely talked about: It ends up being absorbed back into her body. Unfortunately, all that naturally made creamy goodness was not designed to provide the same benefits for a woman’s body as for a baby’s developing body. It was meant to be released. Kept in a woman’s body, it is akin to storing sticks of butter, cartons of cream and bowls of ice cream in the body.


Women breastfeed to bond with their babies. Some breastfeed because they know it decreases their risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. But when considering the impact of breastfeeding on their own health, women should be aware the No. 1 killer of American women is not breast cancer or ovarian cancer but cardiovascular disease.


What are the cardiovascular benefits of breastfeeding?

In most cases, neither the healthcare provider, the news nor social media inform women that breastfeeding protects them from this health risk as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60 million U.S. women (44%) are living with some form of cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is responsible for the death of one in five U.S. women. Yet only 56% of U.S. women recognize heart disease is our No. 1 killer.


So, if heart disease is the No. 1 killer, how then can breastfeeding, an activity completed years before women were even thinking about high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart attacks, reduce this risk? One way to think about this protection is to consider breastfeeding is not just something women can do for their infants; it’s an activity that is actually part of the healing process after childbirth that prepares their bodies for the rest of life.


Breastfeeding causes the body to lower its store of triglycerides and LDL — the body’s bad cholesterol — while simultaneously reducing insulin resistance, increasing HDL — the body’s good cholesterol — and promoting vascular changes that reduce the risk of high blood pressure.


A growing body of scientific evidence shows all women, regardless of their pre-pregnancy diet, level of exercise, weight or smoking history, receive these benefits from breastfeeding. Moreover, the more we study the benefits of breastfeeding, the more we find periods of breastfeeding as short as three months provide some of these benefits. Even partial breastfeeding (breastfeeding while providing children with solid food) has also been shown to provide cardiovascular benefits to mothers.

The protective advantage of breastfeeding exceeds the advantages of diet and exercise after pregnancy in women who don’t breastfeed. While the benefits are strongest in women who breastfeed exclusively for 12 months, the significant cardiovascular benefit to women who breastfeed for shorter amounts of time is extremely important to recognize.


Learn more about breastfeeding support at Nuvance Health.


Breastfeeding as a mother’s right

Projective data demonstrates that if the U.S. were able to support women in overcoming the numerous and individual obstacles to breastfeeding and increase the percentage of women who breastfeed from 20% to 90%, the cardiovascular benefits would be staggering. Experimental calculations show that if 90% of women breastfeed for one year, we could reduce the number of heart attacks among women by 14,000 per year and reduce the number of women with hypertension by 54,000 per year.


If breastfeeding can be considered healthcare, then it needs to be viewed as a right of the mother. One way to best promote her immediate and long-term health is by breastfeeding. Supporting all breastfeeding individuals not only supports a healthy community but forces healthcare and the community to address the inequalities that are obstacles for women and especially, women of color and low-income women. According to the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Position Statement: Breastfeeding as a Basic Human Right (2022):


“Public policies and laws should be established so that mothers can choose to breastfeed, be supported to breastfeed, and have their choice protected such that they are not denied their right either by laws, coercion, employment practices, or society.”


In this vein, women can promote their own health by asking about the benefits and risks of breastfeeding for their individual situation. They can recognize breastfeeding is as much about them as it is about the newborn. Supporting breastfeeding supports a woman’s full and equal access to the benefits of healthcare, including their heart.

Learn more about preventive cardiology at Nuvance Health.


Dr. Elizabeth Lucal is an OB-GYN with Nuvance Health.