The Link between Breastfeeding and Childhood Leukemia - Crozer-Keystone Health System - PA

Published on August 20, 2015

The Link between Breastfeeding and Childhood Leukemia

A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows
that breastfeeding a baby, even for a short time,
may lower their risk of childhood leukemia.

It’s no secret that breastfeeding is beneficial to both mom and baby. Breast milk provides infants with the best nutrition their growing and developing bodies need due to its mix of vitamins, protein and fat.

Breast milk, which is more easily digested than formula in most cases, also contains antibodies that develop infants’ immune systems and help them fight off viruses and bacteria. And a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows there may be another benefit of breastfeeding to keep babies healthy.

Researchers found that breastfeeding a baby, even for a short time, may lower their risk of childhood leukemia. Specifically, infants who breastfed for at least six months had a 19 percent lower risk of cancer compared to children who had been breastfed for less time or not at all. Another analysis in the study revealed that children who are breastfed for any amount of time have an 11 percent lower risk of childhood leukemia compared to those who were never breastfed.

Although childhood leukemia is rare, it is the second leading cause of death in children. According to the study, there are approximately 175,000 cases of childhood leukemia worldwide every year – and it’s increasing in incidence by 0.9 percent each year.

While this highly accessible and a low-cost preventative health measure is now associated with a lower risk of childhood leukemia, the study didn’t prove that breastfeeding caused the lower cancer risk. In fact, researchers generally know little about how breast milk works and the biology of it.

Despite that, evidence keeps mounting that breast milk is ideal for infants – it’s full of immune-promoting and anti-inflammatory compounds that help babies’ immune systems and healthy gut microbes develop. Research shows that breast-fed babies tend to have more natural-killer cells, a type of immune cell that targets and destroys cancer cells.

Breastfeeding’s powers aren’t limited to a lower risk of cancer. Numerous studies have also associated breastfeeding with a lower risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), type 2 diabetes, asthma, allergies, gastrointestinal infections and obesity. Babies who are breastfed exclusively their first six months of life, without formula, tend to have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses and bouts of diarrhea in addition to fewer hospitalizations and trips to the doctor.

Some studies have linked breastfeeding to high IQ scores in later childhood.

The benefits extend to mothers. Breastfeeding burns extra calories, often helping mothers lose pregnancy weight faster. It also releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size and may also reduce uterine bleeding after birth. Studies have shown that breastfeeding may also lower mothers’ risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.

What’s more, breastfeeding is incredibly bonding for mom and baby. Between the physical closeness, skin-to-skin touching and eye contact, breastfeeding helps infants bond with their mothers and feel secure, which is why they’re encouraged to do it soon after birth.

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