Hands down, a mother’s breast milk is the best food for baby. Breast milk is always available, helps your baby’s brain to develop and keeps your baby healthy through adulthood. Now a new study shows that there may be another solid reason to strongly consider breastfeeding your child: protection against childhood leukemia.
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A new Israeli study finds that breastfeeding your baby for six months or longer may decrease the risk of developing childhood leukemia. Although relatively rare, leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer.
Researchers analyzed data from 18 studies. They found that children who were breastfed for at least six months had a 19 percent lower risk of childhood leukemia than children who were not breastfed or breastfed for a shorter period of time.
A child who had been breastfed for any amount of time less than six months — even those who had been breastfed just once — had an 11 percent lower risk for childhood leukemia than those who were never breastfed, the researchers said.
Childhood leukemia is a leading cause of death among children and teens in the developed world. It represents about 30 percent of all childhood cancers. But little is known about its cause.
Bolstering immune systems
The researchers said science has yet to explain exactly how breast milk protects children. But they believe that breast milk somehow bolsters babies’ immune systems.
Human breast milk contains stem cells. The breastfed infant ingests thousands to millions of those cells daily. Some scientists think that the cells remain unharmed in the digestive tract of the infant, then enter the bloodstream, migrate to different organs, and there provide active immunity.
“This is yet another health benefit of breastfeeding,” says pediatrician Kim Giuliano, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s. “It’s a reason that moms should be encouraged to nurse their babies as long as possible.”
The researchers say that more health care professionals should learn about the potential health benefits of breastfeeding in order to better counsel their patients. New mothers need tools to help them adopt breastfeeding, either through their health care professionals or others who can help.
The general public also should be more aware of these powerful health benefits, the researchers say. They hope that breastfeeding becomes more commonplace and more socially acceptable.
Benefits for baby and mom
Breast milk provides many nutritional benefits for babies. Breastfed babies have:
- Stronger immune systems
- Less diarrhea and constipation
- Fewer colds and respiratory illnesses
- Fewer ear infections
- Better vision
- Lower rates of infant mortality
Moms benefit, too. Breastfeeding promotes faster weight loss, lessens the risk of postpartum depression, builds stronger immunity to fight infection, and increases self-esteem in some women. Women who breastfeed experience:
- Lower risk of breast cancer
- Lower risk of ovarian cancer
- Lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
- Less endometriosis
- Less osteoporosis with age
- Less diabetes
- Less hypertension decreases blood pressure
- Less cardiovascular disease