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Breastfeeding Can Reduce Cancer Rates For Both Mothers And Babies

South Africa has some of the lowest exclusive breastfeeding rates in the world in the first 6 months of a baby’s life, according to the World Health Organization, sitting at an estimated 32%. It’s believed that much of this comes down to a lack of knowledge, personal attributes of the mother (including age, education, self-confidence, HIV status), the influence of family and community and also traditional and cultural practices.

Exclusively breastfeeding babies for six months and continuing breastfeeding beyond six months benefits them in numerous ways. Breastfeeding may help to reduce the risk of childhood cancer like leukaemia and decrease the chance of becoming of obese later in life which is a risk factor for cancer. Mothers also benefit as there is strong evidence that shows those who breastfeed exclusively for 6 months and beyond have a lower chance of developing breast cancer. The risk for endometrial and ovarian cancers is also reduced through breastfeeding. View infographic female cancers…

Why are breastfeeding rates so low in South Africa?

In part, there’s a lack of education for mothers about why they should breastfeed and how long they should breastfeed for, as well as inadequate support from professionals or the public. Opinions are slowly starting to change, helping to make breastfeeding in public more acceptable, as seen with the restaurant group Spur last year who changed their policy to allow mothers to freely breastfeed in their venues.

Another barrier to breastfeeding is that maternity leave in South Africa is only 4 months and is not required by legislation for it to be paid. While some institutions do provide paid maternity leave to their employees, for the rest it’s entirely unpaid, meaning many women go back to work when their babies are only a matter of weeks old, which makes breastfeeding very challenging for mothers.

Legally, lactating women have the right to breastfeed or express milk at work for 30 minutes, twice a day, but a lot of workplaces don’t put these policies in place or provide suitable facilities for mothers to express milk. As breastfeeding becomes more acceptable and women become aware of their rights in the workplace, it’s likely there will be an increase in breastfeeding rates, as seen in other parts of the world.

Benefits of breastfeeding for baby

Breast milk can be considered liquid gold that’s the perfect composition to give infants the best start in life. Research found that infants who had been breastfed had a 15-30% reduction in adolescent and adult obesity when compared to those who hadn’t been breastfed at all.

Other benefits include:

• A study from British medical journal, The Lancet, found that children who had been breastfed scored higher on intelligence tests.
• The reduction in childhood obesity also results in a lower chance of type 1 and 2 diabetes
• Breast milk is easily digested by babies
• Breast milk delivers antibodies and probiotics from mom to strengthen the immune system
• Research from the University of Virginia found that the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is halved in babies fed for two months

Long-term benefits, including less chance of childhood leukaemia

The initial benefits to baby are obvious and well-researched, but it can be more difficult to establish the long-term benefits for an adult who was breastfed as a baby. However, research is starting to show that adults who were breastfed as babies have a lower chance of developing heart disease, digestive diseases, and multiple sclerosis. Research from Amitay and a colleague, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that breastfeeding a child for six months or longer decreased their chance of developing childhood leukaemia by 19%, compared to those who were breastfed for less or not at all.

Breastfeeding reduces the chance of cancer for mothers

Breastfeeding has been shown to help the mother’s uterus reduce back to its original size, causes the body to release Prolactin and Oxytocin, which are mood-boosting hormones, and can burn up to 500 calories a day, helping women to lose any weight gained during their pregnancy. Some of the most impressive benefits are seen in studies that show a reduction of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Researchers from the Collaborative Group found that for every 12 months a woman breastfeeds, her risk of breast cancer drops by 4.3%. These 12 months can be in one period or as a total for several children over time. Australian researchers found that women who breastfed for at least 13 months had a 63% decreased chance of developing ovarian cancer compared to those that breastfed for 7 months. Impressively, women who breastfed for more than 31 months saw a massive 91% decreased risk of ovarian cancer compared to 10 months of breastfeeding. So, it really is a case of the longer women breastfeed, the more benefits there are.

Why does breastfeeding reduce the chance of cancer?

It’s believed that the risk of breast cancer is reduced by breastfeeding for two reasons. The first is that most women won’t have their period while they are breastfeeding, which decreases their lifetime exposure to menstrual cycles and the associated hormones, such as androgens that are known to play a role in the risk of cancer. The second reason is that during pregnancy and breastfeeding breast tissue is sloughed off helping to remove cells that are damaged or mutated. The reasons for the reduced rate of ovarian cancer is less certain, but this could again be down to fewer ovulation rounds throughout a woman’s life, which means less exposure to hormone imbalance.

Alternative options to breastfeeding with all the benefits

For some women, breastfeeding is difficult for various reasons, such as a poor latch, under-supply of milk or pain and soreness. The good news is that it’s still possible for the baby to be fed breast milk in most situations. Mothers may be able to express their breast milk by hand or with a pump so that it can then be put into a bottle and fed that way. This is also a good option for mothers who have to go back to work while they’re still breastfeeding, as they can express milk at work and stash some in their fridge or freezer for other caregivers to feed to their baby. If this isn’t an option, it’s possible to use get donor milk from a milk bank where other moms donate their excess milk. This should only be done through official milk banks who have a strict criteria for who can donate milk based on things like their health and diet.

The benefits of breastfeeding are seen by both mothers and their babies in many ways, including a lowered chance of different types of cancer. South Africa is becoming more accepting of breastfeeding in public, which will inevitably make it easier for mothers to breastfeed their infants, and hopefully for longer, too.

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