We've heard before that breastfeeding has health benefits for moms as well as their babies, but new research has uncovered even more long-term pluses for mamas who choose this route.
baby looking at mom while breastfeeding
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It is well documented that breastfeeding provides numerous benefits for babies. Breastfeeding has also been proven to provide health benefits for moms, like cancer prevention. And, ahem, it's worth mentioning many moms say nursing melts baby weight away faster than you can say "skinny jeans."

Now, a new study out of the University of North Carolina Health Care System, and published in the journal Maternal & Child Nutrition, finds that breastfeeding may be even better than previously thought, when it comes to mothers' long-term health.

When moms exclusively breastfeed for six months, and continue to breastfeed for a year after birth, their risk for death and disease goes down, as does their babies', according to researchers who looked at two groups of moms for the study. One group, called the "optimal" group, breastfed as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Another group, named the "suboptimal" group, consisted of moms who breastfed at current rates in the U.S., or less than what's recommended.

The researchers say many childhood diseases may be prevented if babies are breastfed, including acute lymphoblastic leukemia, ear infections, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, gastrointestinal infections, lower respiratory tract infections, obesity, necrotizing enterocolitis, and SIDS. Maternal illnesses like breast cancer, pre-menopausal ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and heart attacks may be prevented as well.

So-called suboptimal breastfeeding was associated with more than 3,340 premature deaths annually, mostly maternal.

Of course, it's impossible that every child who has ever suffered one of the aforementioned diseases wasn't breastfed, so obviously there are other factors at play; the same can be said for the mothers. But what we can take away from this is that breastfeeding is certainly a significant way to ensure good health for both mother and child.

The study's senior author, Dr. Alison Stuebe, says she hopes this research will help to shape public policy in favor of mothers. "Currently, 22 percent of employed mothers return to work within 10 days of birth," she said in a press release. "Paid leave keeps mothers and babies together, which is essential for breastfeeding. Enacting paid family leave will impact the lifelong health of women and children."

Dr. Stuebe and her colleagues also note the importance of educating all moms on the benefits of breastfeeding and supporting them to succeed at their breastfeeding goals. Because as study co-author Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz explains, breastfeeding is clearly a women's health issue as well as a childhood health issue.

Um, truth time. I didn't breastfeed my three children, so when I read about a study like this, of course I start to feel guilty and worried. And defensive. Maybe I'd fall into the "sub-sub-suboptimal" group?

Humor and emotions aside, I think it's important to realize that underneath all this data are real families, and everyone is different. So while no one would argue that if you can and want to breastfeed, you absolutely should, and that there are so many benefits to doing so, it's worth remembering that there are so many other ways to nurture a child and promote his or her long-term health, as well as yours as a mother.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.