Public Beliefs About the Maternal Benefits of Breastfeeding
by Anne Eglash MD, IBCLC, FABM
How well does the US population know the importance of breastfeeding and lactation for maternal health?
Ongoing research increasingly demonstrates that women who do not breastfeed have poorer health outcomes over time compared to women who breastfeed. Breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. These are all leading causes of illness and death among US women.
It is known that people have reasonable awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding for infants, but public awareness of the importance of breastfeeding for the mother has not been well studied.
This week's research study evaluated data collected by Porter Novelli SummerStyles, an online marketing survey that collects opinions about health. The survey, sent randomly around the country in 2018 and 2021, asked 3 questions about the benefits of breastfeeding as follows: ‘If a mother breastfeeds her baby, she may be less likely to develop [breast cancer, high blood pressure, or type 2 diabetes] later in her life’. The participant could select agree (somewhat agree/strongly agree), neutral (neither agree or disagree), and disagree (somewhat disagree/strongly disagree).
The survey also collected data on race, ethnicity, gender, age, education, household income, employment status, marital status, and region in the county.
There were approximately 8100 participants combined from both the 2018 and 2021 surveys. The researchers found that 23.9% agreed that breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer, 16% agreed that breastfeeding protects from high blood pressure, and 15.4% agreed that breastfeeding protects from type 2 diabetes. These results did not differ from 2018 to 2021.
What else? See the question!
- Women, as compared to men, were more likely to agree that breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
- Approximately 75% of the respondents were ‘neutral’ when asked about the effect of breastfeeding on breast cancer, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
- People with a higher education were more likely to agree that breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
- People who identified as Black or African American were least likely to agree that breastfeeding reduces breast cancer and type 2 diabetes.
See the Answer
The objective of this study was to better understand US public awareness of maternal health benefits of breastfeeding. Data from the 2018 and 2021 SummerStyles surveys were analyzed to explore public belief in select maternal benefits of breastfeeding. As in 2018, in 2021 a low percentage of respondents believed that breastfeeding protects the mother against breast cancer (23.9%), high blood pressure (15.5%), or type 2 diabetes (15.4%), with male, older, and unmarried respondents less likely to believe in these protective effects. More public awareness of maternal benefits of breastfeeding might help increase demand for breastfeeding-supportive programs and policies.
After I discuss parental benefits of breastfeeding, partners often seem more supportive of lactation. I explain that breastfeeding helps to ameliorate the long term health effects from pregnancy complications. For example, the visceral fat (in the abdomen and upper body) that accumulates during pregnancy is often not completely lost postpartum and is associated with increased insulin resistance. Increased insulin resistance is considered a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and all-cause mortality over time. Breastfeeding is the natural way to reverse the insulin resistance gained from pregnancy by reducing visceral fat, lowering the blood sugar, and reducing long-term risks of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. To put it simply, breastfeeding is physiologic, the natural consequence of pregnancy, and without it, there are health consequences for the future.