According to the American Academy of Pediatrics(AAP), exclusive breastfeeding of infants for about the first six months and continued breastfeeding for a year or longer after introducing solid foods is recommended.
The World Health Organization(WHO) also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life.
Exclusive breastfeeding refers to giving infants only breast milk and no other solid or liquid foods. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), only one in four infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months.
What Are The Benefits Of Breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding is beneficial for both the infant and the mother. Benefits of breastfeeding include:
- Provides nutrition for infants
- Contains antibodies needed for the infant’s immunity
- Linked to higher IQ scores of the infant
- Lowers risk of breast and ovarian cancer in the mother
- Lowers mother’s risk of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure
- Helps the bonding process between the infant and mother
- Reduces disease risk and help maintain a healthy weight for the infants and mother
- Reduces the risk of postpartum depression in mothers
Link Between Breastfeeding Duration & Breast Cancer
Research shows that mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of developing pre and postmenopausal breast cancer. This benefit increases with an increase in the duration of breastfeeding for more than 6 months.
Researchers have put forth several possible explanations to address the link between breastfeeding duration and breast cancer risk. All these explanations revolve around exposure to one of the female sex hormones, estrogen.
Estrogen stimulates breast cell growth. Prolonged exposure to estrogen can increase the risk for breast cancer. Women have lower levels of estrogen during breastfeeding periods. This is because breastfeeding delays menstrual periods. The lifetime exposure to estrogen decreases with longer breastfeeding durations, and this decreases the risk of breast cancer.
Another reason is that the breast sheds a lot of tissue after lactation. During this process, it may also get rid of cells with damaged DNA that may lead to cancerous growth. Lactation may also lead to changes in the expression of genes found in breast cells. This can decrease the risk of cancer development.
A meta-analysis study showed that breastfeeding contributed to a 20% reduced risk for triple-negative breast cancer and a 10% reduced risk for estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer.
Breastfeeding Duration & Breast Cancer
Studies have estimated that the heritability of breastfeeding duration ranges from 44 to 54%. People with certain genetic types may tend to breastfeed their children for a longer duration than others.
The XRCC2 Gene
The XRCC2 gene contains instructions for producing a DNA repair protein. This protein also helps maintain chromosomal stability.
Changes in this gene are associated with increased risk of breast cancer and fanconi anemia. Fanconi anemia is a rare but serious blood disorder that prevents your bone marrow from making enough new blood cells for your body. It is passed down through families.
rs3218536 is a single nucleotide polymorphism or SNP located in the DNA-repair gene XRCC2.
A 2010 study examined the role of DNA repair deficiencies in cancer development, especially in breast cancer. The study population was divided into women who breastfed and women who had never breastfed.
It was observed that among women who had never breastfed, those who carried the AG genotype of rs3218536 had a lower risk of breast cancer than those with the other genotypes.
After classifying this group according to the menopausal status, it was observed that postmenopausal women with the A allele had a lower risk of breast cancer than those with the G allele.
The MDM2 Gene
The MDM2 gene contains instructions for the production of Mouse double minute 2 homolog (MDM2) protein. It is also known as E3 ubiquitin-protein ligase Mdm2 protein.
This protein acts as a negative regulator (suppresses the activity) of p53 tumor suppressor protein.
A study has reported that the activity of the MDM2 gene seems to be amplified in breast cancer cells.
rs2279744, also known as 410T-G, has been studied for several years to determine its role in cancer.
This SNP influences the ability of the MDM2 protein to bind to p53 tumor suppressor protein.
The G allele of this SNP is associated with an increased risk for breast cancer, especially in women who have breastfed for less than 6 months and women who are obese.
Some factors that influence breast cancer duration include:
- Postpartum emotions: Baby blues and postpartum depression may make it hard for the mother to gather energy to breastfeed. Postpartum depression can severely impact the mother and her choice to take care of the baby or breastfeed.
- Socioeconomic status and maternal employment: Women of lower socioeconomic status tend to skip or stop breastfeeding very early. If the mother has to return to work early, she may stop breastfeeding or may find it difficult to have time to pump breast milk.
- Mastitis: It is an inflammation of the breast tissue, which may be an infection and result in pain, swelling, redness, and fever, or chills in certain cases. Mastitis commonly affects women who are breastfeeding.
- Latching issues
- Alcohol consumption or smoking
Recommendations For Breastfeeding
Increasing Breastfeeding Duration
- Training doctors and midwives about the correct breastfeeding techniques and their importance will ensure new parents understand the process well.
- It is important to stay hydrated while breastfeeding. Have a cool drink, milk, juice, or water, by your side to hydrate yourself as you feed.
- Maintaining a healthy weight when planning pregnancy can keep BMI levels normal after delivery. This may help in the successful initiation and continuation of breastfeeding for a longer duration.
Breast Cancer Screening
It is important to get periodic breast cancer screening done. Some screening options include mammography and breast MRI. You can check with your medical practitioner for suitable tests.
- Breastfeeding has benefits to both the mother and the child. It provides all essential nutrients for the infant and lowers the risk of many health conditions, including breast cancer in the mother.
- Research shows that breastfeeding is linked to a reduction in the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. This is mainly due to the decreased exposure to estrogen during lactation.
- Genetics influences both breastfeeding duration and breast cancer risk with shorter (<6 months) breastfeeding duration.
- Some factors that affect breastfeeding include postpartum depression, cracked or sore nipples, mastitis, latching issues, socioeconomic status, maternal employment, alcohol consumption, and smoking.
- Regular breast cancer screening with mammography or breast MRI can help with early diagnosis and support a good prognosis.