Babies & newborns Family Medicine Obstetrics Featured

Breastfeeding lowers mom’s risk of heart attack and stroke

breastfeeding mother and baby
Dr. Karen Fleming

Most mothers are familiar with the benefits breastfeeding has for their little ones, including boosting babies’ immune systems, as well as lowering risk for asthma, obesity and diabetes.

My patients are often surprised when I mention breastfeeding can safeguard a woman’s heart health.

Here’s what we know

Several studies have found breastfeeding lowers a woman’s risk of both heart attack and stroke. This is pretty significant: the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada estimates 31,000 women in Canada die every year from heart disease and stroke. The studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association and show a link between breastfeeding and a lower risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke far beyond a woman’s breastfeeding years. (The studies can be viewed here and here)

This is compelling support. I strongly recommend breastfeeding to my patients, especially those who may have developed preeclampsia or gestational diabetes during their pregnancy. The protective benefits of breastfeeding stretch to your post-menopausal years.

What we don’t know yet is why breastfeeding is so helpful for mother’s heart health. Some suggest it could be that breastfeeding releases the hormone oxytocin which relaxes blood vessels. Or that the impact of breastfeeding on helping to lose pregnancy-related weight may change a woman’s metabolism and lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

During your doctors’ appointments (during pregnancy and beyond)

There are some common complications in pregnancy — like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia — that are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Be sure to share your pregnancy history with your family doctor.

The great news is that your heart health is linked to many factors in your control, like the foods you eat, your activity level and whether you smoke. There is a lot to do to help lower your risk for developing heart disease.

Getting help breastfeeding

If you’re having problems with breastfeeding, there is a lot of help out there. Visit sunnybrook.ca/womenandbabies for tips and information.

About the author

Dr. Karen Fleming

Dr. Karen Fleming

Dr. Karen Fleming is a family physician with a special interest and expertise in pregnancy and birth.

She is the Division Lead for Family Medicine Obstetrics at Sunnybrook. She is also the Interim Chief of Sunnybrook's Department of Family and Community Medicine.

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