When you are having a baby, chances are good that lots of people will have lots of advice. One of the things they’ll probably recommend is breastfeeding. Everyone from your obstetrician to the nurses in the maternity ward to possibly even your friends and family will tell you that it’s important to nurse, and with good reason. Breastfeeding has been linked with lots of benefits including better bonding with your infant, losing those pregnancy pounds faster, and a higher IQ in your child. And now, new research offers up yet another reason it is important to breastfeed–possibly decreasing the likelihood that your baby will develop leukemia as a child.
The study, which was conducted at the University of Haifa in Israel, found that nursing may lower the risk of pediatric leukemia by 14 to 19 percent. The scientists reached this conclusion by performing a meta-analysis of 18 studies that had been previously published. The subjects of each of the 18 investigations were mothers of children who had been diagnosed with leukemia and mothers of children who were healthy. They were asked questions that included whether or not they breastfed their children and their responses were compiled and compared.
The research was not designed to prove cause and effect, and these findings in no way show that failure to nurse a baby causes pediatric leukemia. However, that difference of 14 to 19 percent is significant enough to establish an association between breastfeeding and lowering a child’s risk of this disease. The scientists found that it was a minimum of six months of breastfeeding that appears to confer some type of protection.
The major weakness of this type of study is that the findings are based on recall. You might think that you would certainly remember the length of time that you nursed a child, but if you are asked about it several years later and have more than one kid, some of the details might be a little fuzzy. However, even if that is an issue, it stands to reason that most mothers can provide a fairly accurate account of whether or not they breastfed and the approximate duration.
At any rate, even if the 14 to 19 percent determined by the scientists is slightly off, the evidence still provides a link to reducing the chance of your child developing leukemia. And any potential reduction of a risk like that is something most mothers would jump at. Leukemias, which affect the bone marrow and blood, are responsible for approximately 30 percent of all pediatric cancers according to the American Cancer Society. It is the most common form of childhood cancer, and treatment typically involves chemotherapy and sometimes radiation or surgery as well.
While the research did not address exactly how breastfeeding might help prevent pediatric leukemia, the answer might lie in a 2014 study at the University of Kentucky in Lexington that showed breast milk is an effective route of transmitting antibodies from mother to baby. These antibodies serve a valuable function by quickly bringing the infant’s immune system up to speed and helping the child fight off infections. And as Jon Barron has pointed out,cancer is intimately tied to the strength of your immune system. Other research has found that breastfed babies are hospitalized less frequently than their bottle-fed counterparts, have a lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome, and have diminished rates of ear infections, diarrhea, allergies, anddiabetes.
Ultimately, to breastfeed a child or not is a matter of choice. But with so many proven health benefits to both infant and mother (breastfeeding has been shown to reduce your risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as rheumatoid arthritis), it is hard to imagine many reasons why a woman would choose formula over nursing. Of course sometimes there are extenuating circumstances due to an adoption, inability to produce sufficient quantities of breast milk, and other issues that might preclude nursing. But any time spent breastfeeding is worthwhile for the health of both you and your little one.