Breast cancer

Updated 08 November 2017

Here’s another reason women should breastfeed

Research indicates that breastfeeding has great benefits for both mother and baby.

While the benefits of breastfeeding can't be disputed, South Africa has the lowest rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the world, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

One reason why South African mothers should breastfeed is that it helps protect women against breast cancer

Of 18 studies analysed by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), 13 found the risk of breast cancer dropped 2% for every five months a woman breastfed.

The report, updating global science on breast cancer, also found that breastfed babies are less likely to gain excess weight as they grow, which could reduce their cancer risk later in life. In adults, being overweight or obese increases the risk for 11 common cancers, according to the AICR.

Benefits of breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is protective in several ways, according to the report. It may delay return of a new mother's menstrual periods, reducing lifetime exposure to hormones like oestrogen, which are linked to breast cancer risk. In addition, the shedding of breast tissue after lactation may help get rid of cells with DNA damage.

The report added that maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol and being physically active also reduce breast cancer risk.

"With the many benefits of breastfeeding, it's important that new moms get support to successfully breastfeed for longer than a few days or weeks," Bender said in an institute news release. "It's also critical to know there are steps all women can take to lower the risk of this cancer."

Breast feeding good for mother and baby

And not only does breastfeeding have benefits for the mother, but also for the baby. Breast milk is essential for the development of a newborn baby by providing adequate nutrition, and can help protect against infection as well chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, obesity and asthma. AICR recommends new mothers breastfeed exclusively for up to six months and then add other liquids and foods to the baby's diet.

According to a Health24 article breast milk contains the proteins, fats, vitamins and carbohydrates a baby needs. In order to stimulate milk production it is recommended that mothers eat foods like garlic, oats, carrots, fennel, spinach, nuts, sesame seeds and ginger.

Low rate of breastfeeding in South Africa

The low rate of breastfeeding in South Africa can be ascribed to the lack of understanding of the critical benefits of breastfeeding, as well as the fear of HIV transmission.

UNICEF has put measures in place to raise awareness of the benefits of breast cancer. While it isn't always possible for a mother to breastfeed, the WHO still recommends breastfeeding as it is beneficial for both mother and baby.


Ask the Expert

Breast cancer expert

Dr Gudgeon qualified in Birmingham, England, in 1968. She has more than 40 years experience in oncology, and in 1994 she founded her practice, Cape Breast Care, where she treats benign and malignant breast cancers. Dr Boeddinghaus obtained her qualification at UCT Medical School in 1994 and her MRCP in London in 1998. She has worked extensively in the field of oncology and has a special interest in the hormonal management of breast cancer. She now works with Dr Gudgeon at Cape Breast Care. Read more.

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