Breastfeeding Cuts Mother’s Risk of Cancer, Diabetes and Heart Disease

Filed under News, Science & Research, Sport & Recreation ~ by Press on  10 May 2019

With a declining rate and duration of breastfeeding in Australia, research reveals little-known health benefits of breastfeeding for the mother.

Although benefits of mother’s milk for a newborn child are increasingly understood, the PSANZ* Early Life Nutrition Coalition advocates the protective effect of breastfeeding against some of the biggest health issues affecting Australian women today – cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

(*The Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand)

Recognising that breastfeeding is not possible for all women, Coalition Chairman, Professor Peter SW Davies says that the practice does confer significant benefits, both for the mother’s long-term health and for the development of her child’s defences against disease in later life. Most mothers are probably not aware of the benefits of breastfeeding to their own health – especially of breastfeeding beyond six months," said Professor Davies.

The benefits of breastfeeding for mothers are significant:

  • Women who breastfeed for 12 months reduce their risk of breast cancer by up to 26 per cent (including mothers who supplement their breast milk with infant formula). This compares to just a seven per cent reduction if breastfeeding stops at six months.1
  • Women who breastfeed for 12 months reduce their risk of ovarian cancer by 37 per cent (including mothers who supplement their breast milk with infant formula). This compares to just a 17 per cent reduction if breastfeeding stops at six months.1
  • It has also been reported that women who breastfeed for a longer period reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 32 per cent compared to those who only breast feed for a short time.2
  • Women who breastfeed for any duration reduce their risk of dying from heart disease by 34 per cent, or of being hospitalised due to heart disease by 14 per cent.3

Professor Davies acknowledges that the reason for these health benefits is still being researched, but says:

The message on Mother’s Day is simple – breastfeeding is good for mums and babies and the longer a woman can breastfeed, the lower her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers, type 2 diabetes or heart disease”. 

Sustained breastfeeding after the introduction of solid foods appears to be the key. The longer the better,” he added.

Australian women initiate breastfeeding at high rates but stop earlier than is desirable. The 2010 Australian National Infant Feeding Survey revealed that 90% of new mothers initiated exclusive breastfeeding, while only 15.4% of babies were exclusively breastfed to five months.4

Breast and ovarian cancers, diabetes and heart disease in Australian women
  • About 19,000 Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year alone. The lifetime risk of a woman developing breast cancer is now about one-in-seven, with the number of Australian women diagnosed increasing annually.5
  • This year around 1,500 Australian women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, with more than 1,000 estimated to lose their lives to the disease.6
  • Type 2 diabetes now affects around 500,000 Australian women. The number of cases of type 2 diabetes increases with age.7
  • Up to one-in-five Australian women aged 75 years and over are living with heart disease.8

It has also been shown that obese women are at risk of premature cessation of breast feeding.9

Research shows that breastfed babies are less likely to develop obesity in later life than those raised on infant formula. While the risk is reduced most in babies that are exclusively breastfed, receiving any breast milk for an extended period appears to be important.10-12

Addtionally, a child’s risk of acute middle ear infection can be reduced through exclusive breastfeeding and breastfeeding for a longer duration.13

Australia has good breastfeeding initiation rates, however we are not so good at keeping breastfeeding going to around six months, let alone 12 months,” said Professor Davies.

Breastfeeding provides the optimal nutrition for baby during the all-important window of opportunity to lay the groundwork for a child’s long-term health, it also delivers major, long-term health benefits for mums,” he said.

The Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand (PSANZ) Early Life Nutrition Coalition seeks to drive awareness and action that supports empowerment and behavioural change for improved nutritional status during the ‘First 1,000 Days’.

Key areas of focus include: maternal nutrition before, during and after pregnancy; maternal weight gain during pregnancy; paternal health and diet; promoting the importance of breastfeeding for as long as possible; introducing solids, including known allergens, at around six months; and positive nutritional role-modelling.

Additional information, including a free downloadable E-Booklet on Pregnancy and Nutrition, is available at

  1. Chowdhury R, et al. Breastfeeding and maternal health outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Paed. 104. 96-113. 2015
  2. Aune D, et al Breastfeeding and the maternal risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of cohort studies. Nutr. Metab. Cardiovasc Dis 2. 107-115. 2014
  3. Nguyen B, et al. Breastfeeding and Cardiovascular Disease Hospitalization and Mortality in Parous Women: Evidence from a Large Australian Cohort Study. J Am Heart Assoc 8.e01156.DOI:10.1161./JAHA. 118.011056. 2019
  4. Australian Government Department of Health Citation Accessed 12th April 2019.
  5. Breast Cancer Network Australia. Accessed 12th April 2019
  6. Cancer Australia. Citation Accessed 12th April 2019
  7. Australian Institute of Health & Welfare. Citation Accessed 12th April 2019
  8. Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Health Survey 2017-18: First Results. Citation
  9. Newby R and Davies PSW, Antenatal breastfeeding intention, confidence and comfort in obese and non-obese primparous Australian women: associations with breastfeeding duration. Eur J Clin Nutr. 70.8 935-940. 2016.
  10. von Kries et al, Breast feeding and obesity: cross sectional study. BMJ. 319. 147-150. 1999
  11. Gillman et al, Risk of overweight among adolescents who were breastfed as infants. JAMA, 285. 19. 2461-2467
  12. Yan et al, The association between breastfeeding and childhood obesity: a meta-analysis. BMC Public Health 14. 1267. 2014
  13. Bowatte G, et al. Breastfeeding and childhood acute otitis media: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Paed. 104 85-95. 2015

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