When ‘breast is best’ for mothers

Breastfeeding gives baby the ‘best start’ in life, according to the World Health Organization, and research also supports its usefulness in helping mothers to recover from pregnancy – particularly for heavier women.

To mark the World Breastfeeding Week (1-7 August), Flinders University Professor of Women’s Health and Midwifery Research Annette Briley says breastfeeding has been shown to improve long-term health outcomes for babies who receive at least six months of mother’s milk as recommended by WHO guidelines.

She says there is growing evidence it can help women’s recovery from childbirth and other cardio-metabolic health outcomes.

Professor Annette Briley addresses the Cosmos Science City forum.

“Our research indicates that overweight or obese women – with BMI of 25 or more – are less likely to think about breastfeeding or want to breastfeed, and those who do, tend to breastfeed for shorter duration than their leaner counterparts,” says Professor Briley.

“According to the AIHW data, 51% of women embarking on pregnancy are overweight or obese.

“In addition to the recognised health benefits for mother and baby, it should be noted that heavier women can benefit from some moderate weight management advantages by breastfeeding for at least six months – if only one feed a day.

“Their weight loss would generally outstrip that of the average larger woman who chose not to breastfeed who, in this research, instead tended to gain almost 2kg (1.96kg) post-pregnancy compared to those who choose to breastfeed, who retained 80g.

“We know that women also tend to put on weight between pregnancies, so the cumulative benefits of getting back into shape by breastfeeding and other measures results in better long-term outcomes after pregnancy.”

As well as long-term cardio-metabolic health benefits, new emerging evidence suggests breastfeeding can also reduce the long-term risk of developing diabetes, she says, while other research has found better developmental milestones for breastfed babies compared to milk formula-fed babies.

Professor Briley says more can be done by healthcare professionals, families, friends and communities to encourage women from all cultures and socio-economic backgrounds to breastfeed for the minimum six months – and longer – including when they return to work.

Fewer than half of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed, according to the WHO’s Breastfeeding Week 2023 campaign.

Only 20% of countries require employers to give workers paid breaks and facilities for breastfeeding or expressing milk, while more than half a billion working women are not given essential maternity protections in national laws.

Annette Briley was part of the UK Pregnancy Better Eating and Activity Trial (UPBEAT) and related studies on gestational diabetes.

Professor Annette Briley joined other Adelaide experts at this week’s Cosmos Science City ‘Join the Midwife’ seminar, hosted by the Royal Institution of Australia and supported by Inspiring South Australia.    

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College of Medicine and Public Health Research