Landmark Study Highlights Effect of Breastfeeding on Women’s Health

Cambridge, MA — A new study has found that low breastfeeding rates in the U.S. may cause as many as 5,000 cases of breast cancer, nearly 54,000 cases of hypertension, and almost 14,000 heart attacks each year. The study, published online June 6 by Obstetrics & Gynecology, is the first-ever cost analysis exploring the impact of breastfeeding on maternal health.
The analysis used sophisticated models to compare the effect of current breastfeeding rates in a simulated group of nearly two million U.S. women who turned 15 in 2002. The authors modeled this cohort of women across their lifetimes and estimated cumulative costs. They then compared these results to what would be expected if 90% of the women followed medical recommendations to breastfeed each child for one year. Currently, only about 25% of US children are still breastfeeding at one year of age.

The economic costs to society of premature death total $17.4 billion a year, due to an increase in heart attacks, hypertension, breast cancer, premenopausal ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes in women who breastfeed less than recommended. In the study, premature death is defined as before age 70, or more than 10 years before the average U.S. woman is expected to die. The authors also found the increased burden of disease from suboptimal breastfeeding increased medical costs, incurring $734 million in direct costs and $126 million in indirect costs. The costs result from the increased rates of breast cancer, hypertension, and heart attacks, which are seen in women who breastfeed less than recommended.


“Breastfeeding is an important women’s health issue,” said study lead author Melissa Bartick, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance. “Yet few U.S. mothers are currently able to reach their own personal breastfeeding goals.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found the 60% of women do not breastfeed as long as they intend to. “We need to enact policies to enable women to meet their own breastfeeding goals and also meet medical recommendations so that they can breastfeed longer,” she added. For example, mothers who deliver in “Baby-Friendly Hospitals” are more likely to get the early lactation support they need.

Dr. Bartick previously led a similar cost analysis on the cost of excess pediatric disease due to low breastfeeding rates, which was published in 2010. That study showed that suboptimal breastfeeding cost the U.S. economy $13 billion a year, including the costs of 911 excess deaths in children per year. The new study has connections of the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition. Along with Bartick, chair of MBC, co-author Dr. Alison Stuebe now of University of North Carolina was a former board member of MBC.

“Thousands of women are suffering needless disease and premature death because they are not able to breastfeed their infants as long as they may want to,” said Dr. Bartick. “Support from all sectors of society is important to help women breastfeed much longer than they do now. They want to breastfeed longer. We need to support their goals. Their health and lives depend on it.”

The study was supported by funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
More information:
“Cost Analysis of Maternal Disease Associated with Suboptimal Breastfeeding,” Melissa C. Bartick, MD, MSc, Alison M. Stuebe, MD, MSc, Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, MD, MS, Christine Luongo, MSc, Arnold G. Reinhold, MBA, and E. Michael Foster, PhD. Obstetrics & Gynecology, July 2013. Published online on June 6, 2013.

Other coverage of this study:

CBS News

WBUR CommonHealth

US News and World Report