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Breastfeeding saves mothers lives too - study

Photo: Breastfeeding saves mothers lives too - study
Breastfeeding may be a lifesaver for some women, according to new international research that shows breastfeeding is more than a child-health issue.

The findings, undertaken by medical researchers in the United States, reinforce the New Zealand Breastfeeding Alliance’s (NZBA) call for increased protection and support of breastfeeding at both the national and regional level.

According to the report, each year in the United States more than 3,340 premature deaths of mothers and infants, and $3 billion in medical costs, are associated with sub-optimal breastfeeding. This is defined as those who did not breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and continue to do so for up to one year.

The majority – nearly 80 percent – of those deaths and medical-related costs affect the mother, revealing that breastfeeding has a bigger impact on women’s health than previously thought.
“Breastfeeding has long been recognised as a child-health issue, but this latest research supports the NZBA’s view that it goes much further than that,” says NZBA chairperson Debra Fenton, also a Primary Maternity Service Manager for Counties-Manukau DHB and representative for the National DHB Women’s Health Managers Group.

“Breastfeeding is proven to help prevent cancer, diabetes and heart disease in the mother, but many women are unaware of these benefits to their own wellbeing. Breastfeeding has a significant impact on women’s health and should be treated as such.

“It highlights the importance of providing women with the support and information they need to breastfeed their babies for as long as possible,” says Fenton.

The study was the first to combine paediatric and maternal disease in a single report, and appeared in the latest edition of Maternal and Child Nutrition.

According to the report, breastfeeding for one year and exclusively for six months would prevent 2619 maternal deaths and 721 child deaths annually in the US.

Using existing research and government data the study group calcuated the rates and costs of diseases that breastfeeding is known to reduce, along with the rates and costs of early deaths from those diseases.

Children’s diseases included in the study were leukaemia, ear infections, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, gastrointestinal infections, lower respiratory track infections, obesity and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. For mothers, the study included breast cancer, pre-menopausal ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension and heart attacks.

“New Zealand is no different from the United States in terms of the public-health benefits that could be realised if breastfeeding became the cultural norm”, says Fenton.

Combined NZBA and Ministry of Health data shows that breastfeeding rates in New Zealand are high at birth, but decline sharply once women are discharged from maternity facilities.

In 2015 the national exclusive breastfeeding rate at discharge from maternity services was 82.8 percent. This dropped to 56.9 percent at six weeks, 43.2 percent at three months and 18 percent at six months.

Internationally, the average exclusive breastfeeding rate at six months is 38 percent.

Says Fenton: “New Zealand needs to more than double its current rate to achieve the World Health Organisation’s Millennium Development Goal of 50 percent of infants being exclusively breastfed at six months.

“A big part of the post-hospital breastfeeding decline is a direct result of women feeling alienated about breastfeeding in the workplace and public places.

“Breastfeeding is a powerful tool in preventing disease and reducing medical costs, as highlighted by this new data. We will always accept and support the fact that for some mothers breastfeeding is not an option, but for the majority it is possible.

“After reading this information we hope that health officials are compelled to put breastfeeding on their radar and recognise it as a public health imperative – for the direct benefit of women, their children and society as a whole.”

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