Can breastfeeding reduce your risk of type-2 diabetes after pregnancy?

by Rebecca Israel, MS. Reviewed by Charles Li, MD

October 15, 2020

  • Women with gestational diabetes have an increased likelihood of developing type-2 diabetes after pregnancy.

  • Breastfeeding for 24 months or more can improve risk factors associated with type-2 diabetes.

  • Breastfeeding, along with healthy sleep, diet, and exercise, can protect against type-2 diabetes after pregnancy.

Breastfeeding and diabetes title

Breastfeeding and diabetes: reducing the risk of type-2 diabetes in women with gestational diabetes

According to the CDC, 2% to 10% of pregnancies in the United States are affected by gestational diabetes every year. Gestational diabetes is a pregnancy-specific form of diabetes that can affect both the mother and the baby. Mothers with gestational diabetes are at higher risk for high blood pressure and pregnancy complications. Their babies are more likely to have health issues such as weight problems.

Gestational diabetes occurs when your body can’t make enough insulin during your pregnancy.

Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy in women who don’t already have diabetes. Every year, 2% to 10% of pregnancies in the United States are affected by gestational diabetes.

Source: CDC Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes can lead to long-term health complications for mothers after pregnancy. One of these complications is a new diagnosis of type-2 diabetes. However, researchers have found evidence to suggest that breastfeeding can protect against type-2 diabetes in this situation.

Breastfeeding duration

A recent study supported by the American Diabetes Association examined the association of breastfeeding duration with type-2 diabetes among women with a history of gestational diabetes. They used 25-years worth of data from the Nurses' Health Study.

Longer duration of lactation is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

Longer duration of lactation was associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes for both total lactation (hazard ratio 1.05 [95% CI 0.83–1.34] for up to 6 months, 0.91 [0.72–1.16] for 6–12 months, 0.85 [0.67–1.06] for 12–24 months, and 0.73 [0.57–0.93] for >24 months, compared with 0 months; P-trend = 0.003).

Source: Lactation Duration and Long-term Risk for Incident Type 2 Diabetes in Women With a History of Gestational Diabetes Mellitus

First, the researchers looked at the overall incidence of type-2 diabetes between mothers with and without gestational diabetes. The study found that women with gestational diabetes who breastfeed for 24 months or more were less likely to develop type-2 diabetes. They found no evidence that breastfeeding for less than 24 months reduced this risk.

Among women free of type 2 diabetes at the blood collection, a longer lactation duration was significantly associated with HbA1c, fasting insulin, and C-peptides.

Longer duration of lactation was also associated with lower HbA1c, fasting plasma insulin, and C-peptide concentrations among women without type 2 diabetes at follow-up (all adjusted P-trend ≤0.04).

The researchers also looked at specific risk factors for type-2 diabetes based on blood samples. They found that longer breastfeeding duration was significantly associated with HbA1c, fasting insulin, and C-peptides. This shows that breastfeeding for 24 months or more can improve at least 3 different risk factors for type-2 diabetes.

Final thoughts

Breastfeeding for 24 months may seem like a long time for most mothers. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies are breastfed for 6 to 12 months. However, there is no evidence to suggest that it is bad to breastfeed for longer. The study above states that mothers with gestational diabetes should breastfeed for twice as long to reduce their risk of type-2 diabetes. Be that as it may, positive health behaviors of sleep, diet, and exercise can also reduce this risk.

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