Teen-age mothers are in no danger of sacrificing their own nutritional health if they choose to breastfeed their babies, according to a study by pediatricians at UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center.
The study, funded by the Ambulatory Pediatric Association, is being presented April 30 at the annual joint meeting of the 2001 Pediatric Academic Societies and American Academy of Pediatrics in Baltimore, Md.
Maternal bone mineral density typically decreases during breastfeeding although levels are replenished once the child is weaned. For teen-age mothers who are still developing bone mass at an accelerated rate, some evidence indicates they may experience a larger decrease in bone mineral density than do adult breastfeeding mothers. The long-term effects of that decrease were unknown, but the UC Davis study shows that teen-age mothers who breastfed had no signs of bone loss when studied an average of nearly three years after their last childbirth.
"Teen-age mothers are still growing and developing," said Caroline Chantry, UC Davis assistant professor of pediatrics, who authored the study. "Recognizing the nutritional demands of a baby who is breastfeeding, I wanted to look at how lactation specifically affects the teens' bone health later in life, as compared to teen-age moms who did not breastfeed and to adults who have not had children."
Teens currently are less likely to breastfeed than adult mothers, Chantry said, partly because of myths surrounding its impact on the young mothers.
The UC Davis study found that the bone mineral density of mothers who breastfed as teens is, in fact, stronger once breastfeeding is concluded than in those who did not breastfeed.
"Until now, we really weren't sure whether the bones of a breastfeeding adolescent could recover from the nutritional rigors of breastfeeding, but the results indicate that lactation may actually protect a teenager's bone health," said Chantry. "This finding, coupled with the known health benefits both baby and mother receive from breastfeeding, clearly underscores the overall advantage for both mother and baby in choosing breastfeeding over formula."
The study accounted for other demographic and lifestyle factors known to affect bone mineral density, such as race, diet, weight and exercise, for example. Results revealed that teen-age mothers who breastfed actually had five- to seven-percent higher bone mineral density in all five areas of the femur that were studied than teen-age mothers who did not breastfeed. Bone mineral density in mothers who breastfed as teens was not significantly higher than that of women who had no children.
Bone density is an important component in the overall health of women. During adolescence and young adulthood bones mineralize to their peak strength, so any factor which results in lessened mineralization could have life-long consequences. As women age, bones may become thin, porous and more fragile, a condition known as osteoporosis. Without strong bone density, women are more susceptible to hip fractures, curvature of the spine and back pain. Women who breastfeed are known to be less prone to hip fractures later in life, but it is not clear that this is associated with improved bone mineral density. Chantry's study is the first to suggest that for mothers who bear children in their teens, bone health may actually be improved by choosing to breastfeed.
"Teen mothers may feel confident that they are enhancing their own long-term health and their babies' when they choose breastfeeding," Chantry said.
Co-authoring the study with Chantry were Robert S. Byrd, UC Davis assistant professor, chief of general pediatrics, and director of pediatric ambulatory services, and Peggy Auinger, American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Child Health Research, Rochester, N.Y.
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