DALLAS, Texas — Breastfeeding, even for just a few days, leads to lower blood pressure in early childhood and better heart health in adult life, according to a new study. Researchers with the American Heart Association discovered that breastfed babies had lower blood pressure as toddlers. Additionally, those differences in blood pressure may translate into improved heart health as adults.
Previous studies have shown that cardiovascular disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, can start in childhood. Research has also confirmed breastfeeding is associated with lower cardiovascular disease risk in adulthood. However, the amount and length of time breastfeeding that is needed to achieve cardiovascular benefit had not been clear, until now.
“This is the first study to evaluate the association of breastfeeding in the first days of life and blood pressure in early childhood,” says lead author Dr. Kozeta Miliku of McMaster University in a media release.
“Infants who received even a relatively small amount of their mother’s early breast milk, also known as colostrum, had lower blood pressure at 3 years of age, regardless of of how long they were breastfed or when they received other complementary foods.”
What makes breastmilk so beneficial?
Miliku explains that colostrum is known to be especially rich in growth factors, immunologic components, and stem cells that are “extremely beneficial” to newborns and only found in human breastmilk. The research team used data from an ongoing Canadian study of more than 3,000 children born between 2009 and 2012. Researchers have been following them ever since their delivery to understand how early life experiences shape health and development.
They analyzed infant feeding information collected from hospital records and caregiver questionnaires for nearly 2,400 children. Among those children, 98 percent were breastfed to some extent, including four percent who received “early limited breastfeeding.” The team defines this as a small number breastfeeding sessions during the hospital stay. Only two percent of the children were not breastfed at all.
Among breastfed children, 78 percent were breastfed for six months or more and 62 percent were exclusively breastfed for at least three months. Exclusive breastfeeding meant breast milk only, without any formula, solid foods, or other fluids after birth.
On average, mothers who never breastfed were younger, more likely to smoke during pregnancy, and less likely to have a college degree in comparison to mothers who breastfed briefly or beyond their hospital stay.
Breastfed children have blood pressure several points lower
The findings, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, showed that, at three years of age, the children who were never breastfed had higher blood pressure measures (average 103/60 mm Hg), compared to those who were breastfed for any duration (average of 99/58 mm Hg). Among the babies receiving only limited early breastfeeding while in the hospital as newborns, blood pressure measures were also lower (average of 99/57 mm Hg) compared to those who were never breastfed.
Blood pressure among the toddlers who had been breastfed was lower regardless of their body mass index (BMI) at age three or their mothers’ social, health, or lifestyle factors. Blood pressure was also lower among toddlers who had been breastfed, regardless of how long they were breastfed or if they received other complementary nutrition and foods.
‘Every drops counts’
“Our study suggests that for cardiovascular outcomes such as blood pressure, even a brief period of breastfeeding is beneficial,” says study senior author Professor Meghan Azad of the University of Manitoba. “This points to colostrum as a key factor in shaping developmental processes during the newborn period.”
“For many reasons, sustained breastfeeding should be strongly supported, and it is also important to understand that ‘every drop counts,’ especially in those critical first few days of life,” Azad adds. “Doctors and public health policymakers should consider the importance of educating new mothers about breastfeeding and offering immediate postpartum lactation support.”
“Our study’s results suggest the short-term savings from not providing in-hospital breastfeeding support and discharging moms too quickly could be greatly outweighed by the long-term costs from reduced cardiovascular health later in life,” the researcher explains.
“This important study provides ongoing support for the premise that care during infancy can influence heart health,” concludes Dr. Shelley Miyamoto, chair of the American Heart Association’s Council on Lifelong Congenital Heart Disease and Heart Health in the Young.
“While further investigation is needed to understand the mechanisms responsible for the positive impact of early breastfeeding on blood pressure in young children, the authors should be commended for their identification of a modifiable factor that has the potential to improve child health.”
SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.