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Breastfeeding and Diabetes: What’s the Connection?

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Posted on August 28, 2012 by 

Did you know August is National Breastfeeding Month? Launched in 2011 by the United States Breastfeeding Committee through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this campaign aims to highlight research that demonstrates the benefits of breastfeeding for infants and mothers.

In celebration of National Breastfeeding Month, we’re offering new and soon-to-be mothers with diabetes some tips for breastfeeding and the advantages it may provide both you and your child.

Benefits for Your Baby

Breast milk is widely considered to be the most beneficial source of nutrition for infants. Studies have shown breastfeeding offers many advantages to newborns, including decreased risks of high respiratory infections, high blood pressure, asthma, atopy (a disorder marked by the tendency to develop allergic reactions) and diabetes.

A mom who has gestational diabetes during pregnancy increases the risk that her child will become obese during childhood. However, one study found that breastfeeding a baby for at least six months neutralizes that risk. Breastfed children of mothers with diabetes were no more likely to be overweight at ages six to 13 than kids whose moms didn’t have diabetes. Breastfeeding for less than six months, though, showed no benefit in reducing obesity.

Some people believe baby formula can lead to infant weight gain, but the bottle itself may be part of the problem. Another study found that babies who get breast milk only from bottles gain weight more rapidly than those who get it exclusively from mothers’ breasts—three ounces more per month during their first year. This could be because babies can control how much milk they swallow during breastfeeding, while parents often take the lead with bottles. Looking to babies for hunger cues may help parents avoid overfeeding when using bottles.

Benefits for You

Babies aren’t the only ones getting something out of breastfeeding—it improves the health of moms, too!

Childbearing may be linked with an increased risk of obesity, but a study published this summer found breastfeeding cuts that risk by about one percent for every six months of nursing. Researchers have several ideas as to why this happens, including the “reset” hypothesis, which suggests breastfeeding may be involved in changing various metabolic control centers in the mother’s brain after childbirth.

Mothers who breastfeed decrease their risks not only of obesity, but also heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And the longer they breastfeed, the lower their risks. In one 20-year study of 704 women, those who didn’t have gestational diabetes lowered their risk for these conditions by 39 to 56 percent, depending on how long they breastfed. For women who had gestational diabetes, the risk was reduced even more: from 44 to 86 percent.

Along with this, mothers who breastfeed are less likely to develop osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis later in life and have a lower risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.

Breastfeeding also can help new moms recover from childbirth more quickly and easily. The hormone oxytocin, released during breastfeeding, will help a mom feel better physically and emotionally. Stress can aggravate diabetes, so this is a big plus!

And if you have gestational diabetes, breastfeeding can help lower your blood glucose levels in the period soon after birth.

Tips for Mothers with Diabetes

Breastfeeding is good for women with diabetes, but it may make your blood glucose a little harder to predict. To help prevent low blood glucose levels, try these tips:

  • Plan to have a snack before or during nursing
  • Drink enough fluids (plan to sip a glass of water or a caffeine-free drink while nursing)
  • Keep something to treat low blood glucose nearby when you nurse, so you don’t have to stop your child’s feeding

There’s a good chance you’ll want to get rid of any extra baby weight as soon as possible, and breastfeeding does burn extra calories, but you shouldn’t try to lose pounds too quickly. It’s important that you get the right amounts of fluids, protein, vitamins and minerals while breastfeeding. Develop a meal plan with your health care provider or dietitian that will allow you to achieve gradual weight loss and still be successful at breastfeeding.

If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes and use either insulin or oral blood glucose-lowering medications, it’s important to understand their safety while breastfeeding. Most medications used to treat diabetes can be safely used during nursing, but be sure to check with your doctor.

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 While breastfeeding is a wonderful option for new mothers, both physically and emotionally, it may not be possible for all women. For many moms, the decision to breastfeed or formula-feed is based on their comfort level, lifestyle and specific medical considerations.

Whatever your decision, make sure it is the right one for you and your child. For women who are able to breastfeed or who would like to, now is a great time to learn more about the benefits of this part of new motherhood.

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