Breastfeeding and Obesity: Health Links You Should Know

Health Writer

The ability of a new mother to immediately provide sustenance to her baby is pretty incredible. Breastfeeding allows a newborn baby to consume the perfect balance of nutrients. Experts have also long touted the many benefits that breastfeeding provides to both mom and baby.

Unfortunately, there can be obstacles to breastfeeding, and one of those obstacles may be a mother having obesity. Women with obesity are less likely to breastfeed their newborns. That is why The Obesity Society (TOS) strongly recommends that women, especially those carrying excess weight or diagnosed with obesity be encouraged, supported, and educated to exclusively breastfeed for the first six month’s of their baby’s life.

Breastfeeding should then continue as appropriate foods are introduced at age milestones, or as recommended by their pediatrician until age one in a way that is mutually desired by mother and baby.

The release of this new position statement follows and embraces the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation, which is also strongly endorsed by organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Breastfeeding rates in the United States have been slowly increasing but are still far below the targets that most of these organizations would like to see. Latest data from the 2016 National Immunization Survey suggests that 21.9 percent of mothers exclusively breastfed for the first six months and 29.2 percent of that group was still breastfeeding the baby at one year. Experts feel those numbers are way too low.

The Obesity Society position statement offers that compared to “normal weight women,” breastfeeding is 14 percent less likely to be initiated by overweight women, and 46 percent less likely in women diagnosed with obesity.

Women who breastfeed have lower risks of:

  • Visceral adiposity
  • Hypertension
  • Hyperlipidemia
  • Diabetes
  • Subclinical heart disease
  • Cardiovascular morbidity and mortality
  • Breast and ovarian cancers

Immediate benefits from breastfeeding include more rapid recovery from childbirth, healthier rates of postpartum weight loss, and lower rates ofpostpartum depression. Breastfed babies also show lower rates of lifetime obesity.

As far as the benefits for the baby, compared to infants who never breastfed, breastfed infants have a 12 to 24 percent reduction in risk of being overweight or obese later-in-life. Long term benefits for kids may also include reduced mortality and morbidity due to infectious diseases, allergies, and gastrointestinal disorders.

The Obesity Society position statement also notes that mothers diagnosed with obesity were less likely to initiate or maintain breastfeeding. One theory for this is that these women are more likely to undergo a C-section, which may result in feeling less motivated to breastfeed right after childbirth due to pain and discomfort at the incision site.

If a woman who is overweight or diagnosed with obesity commits to breastfeeding, she can safely lose weight during the breastfeeding period. In fact, these women should be supported if they make the commitment. With dietary instruction and physical activity, a weight-loss rate of one to two pounds weekly is deemed safe. That weight-loss effort can also counteract the concerns regarding obesity-induced inflammation and the compromising effect it may have on breastfeeding performance.

The Global Breastfeeding Scorecard ranks 194 countries showing that showing that only 40 percent of children under six months of age are breastfed exclusively, and only 23 countries worldwide have a breastfeeding rate “at or above 60 percent.” WHO endorses breastfeeding because studies show that breastfeeding has cognitive and health benefits for mother and child.

The critical period of six months helps to dramatically reduce the risk of diarrhea and pneumonia – two major causes of death worldwide in infants. Experts suggest that breastfeeding can act like a natural first vaccine, giving a baby the best health start in life — protection from deadly diseases and the perfect balance of nutrients in every feeding.

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) concurs with the six month exclusive breastfeeding recommendation with a follow through till one year with food. In fact, UNICEF defines “early initiation of breastfeeding” as a window of within one hour from time of delivery. One huge benefit of breastfeeding is the cost savings - formula is expensive and often times not affordable or accessible. Improving breast-feeding practices worldwide could save the lives of 1.5 million children annually.  WHO also offers evidence that seems to suggest lower rates of obesity in childhood and adolescence, as well as a possible reduced risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D).

There are other barriers to breastfeeding. Returning to work quickly (especially among African-American women), inadequate education and support at the hospital, lack of access to professional support, reluctance to pump milk (financial constraints to afford the equipment or storage issues). It’s hard to identify why some women seem “born to breastfeed,” while others have varying levels of reluctance or struggles, but all women can benefit from support and education.

Society, especially in industrialized nations, needs to support breastfeeding. That means that women should feel very comfortable breastfeeding while on the move in public spaces. The workplace is another crucial site that needs to help with the issue - whether allowing nursing mothers to telecommute, providing on-site baby care and nursing-friendly spaces, or providing storage of pumped breast milk.

“It takes a village” definitely applies to breastfeeding, and with this latest Obesity Society policy statement, health practitioners and hospitals can now help to further push the concept of exclusive breastfeeding. If you are pregnant and want to learn more about breastfeeding, read this article by childbirth educator and HealthCentral author Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D., check out these book recommendations from Dr. Weiss’ website, or find support online via La Leche League International. Also, if you are planning to get pregnant, make the decision to proactively seek education and explore ways you can commit to breastfeeding your newborn.

See more helpful articles:

5 Ways to Kickstart Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding and Thyroid Disease: What Should You Know?

Children at Risk from Unhealthy Diet During Pregnancy