Health effects of breast feeding for mothers: a critical review

Nutr Res Rev. 1997 Jan;10(1):35-56. doi: 10.1079/NRR19970004.


Lactation results in a number of physiological adaptations which exert direct effects on maternal health, some of which may confer both short and long term advantages for breast feeding mothers. Breast feeding in the early postpartum period promotes a more rapid return of the uterus to its prepregnant state through the actions of oxytocin. Breast feeding may also lead to a more rapid return to prepregnancy weight. Among studies that had good data on duration and intensity of lactation, the majority show a significant association between lactation and weight loss. However, there is no evidence that lactation prevents obesity. Lactation also affects glucose and lipid metabolism. The long term effects of these adaptations are unknown but may have implications for preventing subsequent development of diabetes and heart disease. Lactation delays the return of ovulation and significantly reduces fertility during the period of lactational amenorrhoea. This process is linked with feeding patterns and may therefore be affected by practices such as scheduled feedings and the timing of introduction of complementary foods. While the evidence from epidemiologic studies is mixed, several large studies have shown that extended lactation is associated with reduced risk of premenopausal breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers. Although bone mineralization declines during lactation, repletion takes place after weaning. As a result, breast feeding does not appear to cause long term depletion of bone nor does it increase risk of osteoporosis. Many of the physiological effects of lactation are dependent on the stimulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis and milk removal and thus may vary with infant feeding practices. Well controlled studies are needed that include detailed information regarding infant feeding practices in addition to the total duration of any breast feeding. Future feeding recommendations should reflect careful consideration of how such practices affect both infant and maternal health.