By HENRY OWINO (Senior Science Correspondent)

Although childbearing is known to protect against breast cancer, whether or not breastfeeding contributes to this protective effect is unclear.

What most mothers probably know is that breastfeeding can give their babies a healthy start in life. However, it is not the only health benefit. It also can lower the mother breast cancer risk.

Mother breastfeeding her baby in church

Research shows that mothers who breastfeed lower their risk of pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer. And, breastfeeding longer than the recommended six months can provide additional protection.

A study by Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, scientists, found that for every 12 months a woman breastfed, her risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3%.

Epidemiological studies of 52,705 women with breast cancer and 108,411 women without breast cancer from 51 studies in 21 countries were collected, checked, and analyzed centrally. Other subsequent studies of the same also qualified the results.

The study compared mothers who breastfed to those who didn’t. It also found the 12-month time period could be with either one child or as the total for several children.

Right to breastfeeding anywhere in Kenya

Breastfeeding also can help lower woman ovarian cancer risk by preventing ovulation. And the less you ovulate, the less exposure to estrogen and abnormal cells that could become cancer.

Furthermore, Australian researchers found that women who breastfed for more than 13 months were 63% less likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who breastfed for less than seven months.

Women who breastfed multiple children for more than 31 months could reduce their ovarian cancer risk by up to 91% compared to women who breastfed for less than 10 months.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) and American Institute for Cancer, a baby should exclusively be breastfed for at least six months. That means a baby receives only breast milk without water or any other liquids or solids for the entire period.

The health benefits and the mother cancer risk reduction become significant at six months and beyond. Breast milk provides all the energy and nutrients the baby needs during this time to develop and stay healthy.

According to Lindsey Wohlford, wellness dietitian, after six months, breast milk provides at least half of your child’s nutritional needs. So, you can gradually introduce foods like baby cereal, fruits and vegetables. However, you should continue to breastfeed.

Kenya law permits breastfeeding at work

“Breastfeeding past six months is not only beneficial for the child’s health, but the longer it is done, the more protection you receive against breast and ovarian cancers,” says Wohlford.

Many women who breastfeed, experience hormonal changes during lactation that delay their menstrual periods. This reduces a woman’s lifetime exposure to hormones like estrogen, which can promote breast cancer cell growth.

In addition, during pregnancy and breastfeeding, women shed breast tissue. “This shedding can help remove cells with potential DNA damage, thus helping to reduce her chances of developing breast cancer,” Wohlford says.

Breastfeeding not only reduces your chances for developing cancer, but also your child’s. “Evidence shows that it can help prevent your child from being overweight or obese later in life,” Wohlford says.

“Being obese puts a person at risk for many cancers. This includes pancreatic, breast (postmenopausal), endometrial, esophageal, rectal, and kidney cancers.” She adds.

Breastfeeding also helps strengthen your child’s immune system. Your antibodies pass from your milk to your child. This helps lower your child’s risks of ear infections, as well as respiratory and digestive system problems.

Research also indicates the longer a child is breastfed, the lower his or her chances of developing allergies.

Breastfeeding is a right to all mothers and babies

Despite all the health perks, breastfeeding is not easy. If you are considering it or having trouble, get help from a lactation consultant or a professional breastfeeding specialist. Most work in hospitals or health programs.

You can ask the hospital where you plan to deliver to send a consultant to your room shortly after your baby is born. Your health care provider or child’s pediatrician also can help you find one.

If you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, educate yourself before your baby arrives. Talk to your doctor about finding a class that will teach you breastfeeding techniques and tips.  You also can ask for classes or counseling as a baby shower gift.

In most countries nowadays employers are required to provide break time and a private space for nursing mothers. So, speak with your employer to ensure you have the proper setup to express your milk.

“While the push is for women to ‘just do it,’ they can’t go at it alone,” Wohlford says. Tell family and friends your plan to breastfeed even before your baby is born and ask for their support. “Their encouragement can go a long way,” she says.

Remember breastfeeding is about your health as well as your baby’s. So, go at it with the knowledge and resources to be successful. This is why the first week of August annually, is marked as World Breastfeeding Week.