Breastfeeding as recommended — for a total of one year and exclusively for six months — could protect moms as well as their babies from premature death and serious diseases and save the U.S. more than $4.3 billion in health care and related costs, according to a new study published online in Maternal & Child Nutrition.
Study authors said their findings highlight the importance of providing women with the support they need to breastfeed their babies — for their own health and the health of their children.
"Breastfeeding is far more beneficial in preventing disease and reducing costs than previously estimated,” said lead author Melissa Bartick, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a hospitalist at Cambridge Health Alliance. “The results should compel all hospitals to develop programs aimed at helping new moms learn to breastfeed their babies."
For the study, the research team modeled two groups. One was an “optimal” group, in which the majority of moms breastfed as recommended. That group was compared with a “suboptimal” group, in which moms breastfed at current rates in the U.S., which are less than the recommended guidelines. Using existing research and government data, they projected the rates and costs of diseases that breastfeeding is known to reduce, along with the rates and costs of early deaths from those diseases.
Adult diseases included in the evaluation were breast cancer, pre-menopausal ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension and heart attacks. For children, the study included acute lymphoblastic leukemia, ear infections, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, gastrointestinal infections, lower respiratory tract infections, obesity, necrotizing enterocolitis and SIDS.
The researchers found that suboptimal breastfeeding was associated with 3,340 premature deaths in the U.S. each year, costing $3 billion in medical costs, $1.3 billion in indirect costs and $14.2 billion in costs related to premature deaths. The majority of the excess death and medical costs — nearly 80 percent — were maternal.
"Breastfeeding has long been framed as a child health issue, however it is clearly a women’s health issue as well,” said study co-author Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, professor of internal medicine at UC Davis Health System. “Breastfeeding helps prevent cancer, diabetes and heart disease, yet many women have no idea breastfeeding has any of these benefits."
The study results underscore the importance of policies that make it possible for women to breastfeed, according to senior author Alison Stuebe, distinguished scholar of infant and young child feeding at the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute and associate professor of obstetrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"Currently, 22 percent of employed mothers return to work within 10 days of birth,” Stuebe said. “Paid leave keeps mothers and babies together, which is essential for breastfeeding. Enacting paid family leave will impact the lifelong health of women and children."
Additional study authors were Brittany Green of the University of Cincinnati, Briana Jegier of D’Youville College in Buffalo, Arnold Reinhold of Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics in Boston, Tarah Colaizy of the University of Iowa, Debra Bogen of the University of Pittsburgh and Andrew Schaefer of Rice University in Houston.
The research was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The study, titled "Suboptimal breastfeeding in the United States: Maternal and pediatric health outcomes and costs," is available online.
Click here for an infographic highlighting the study’s findings.