School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences

News

31 Jul 2017

Study highlights the physical and psychological rewards of breastfeeding for mum

Encouragement for new mothers who are considering breastfeeding should include highlighting the immediate physical advantages such as weight loss – as well as the health benefits, a new study has found.

Researchers from Loughborough University have published a paper which recommends a novel approach to improving the number of breastfeeding mothers in Britain.

The news has been timed to coincide with World Breastfeeding Week, which begins on Tuesday, August 1 and runs until Monday, August 7.

By outlining some of the personal gains, such as regaining pre-pregnancy body shape more quickly, and psychological advantages, like better self-esteem, academics predicted that women who previously displayed resistance to breastfeeding might be swayed and consider beginning and continuing the practice.

One mother who participated in during the study claimed: “I’m smaller than pre-pregnancy and I eat like a horse!”

Dr Gemma Witcomb, one of the paper’s authors who designed the study, commented that current breastfeeding promotion messages that emphasise the longer-term and invisible health benefits to mother and baby are failing to be effective at increasing and sustaining breastfeeding rates.

“Breastfeeding rates in the UK are incredibly low,” she said. “Some of the lowest in the world, so new approaches are needed”.

By making mothers aware of the more immediate physical benefits such as this it might encourage more women to consider the natural method.

Dr Witcomb said: “This might be particularly effective for specialist groups, such as young mothers, who are much less likely to breastfeed, and who might place greater emphasis on body image.

While focusing on body image might be controversial, Dr Witcomb said “We know that issues around breasts and sexuality are a barrier to breastfeeding for many young mums, so this approach attempts to counteract that by emphasising the positive effects on body image that may be gained”.

The study, Body Shape and Weight Loss as Motivators for Breastfeeding Initiation and Continuation, set out to explore what benefits mothers who were currently breastfeeding – or had recently breastfed – felt that they gained from breastfeeding.

Overwhelmingly, mothers reported benefits in terms of their body weight and shape.

Many felt that breastfeeding had helped them regain their pre-pregnancy body shape and lose their baby weight. 

Women also reported several other benefits, including greater self-esteem, improved hair, nails and skin, and not having to watch what they ate due to burning more calories.

More than 180 mothers, with children aged seven to 24 months, took part in the study.

They were asked about infant feeding choices and the perceived benefits of breastfeeding; questions such as, ‘Do you feel that breastfeeding has had any positive effects on your body?’.

Dr Witcomb, commenting on the results, said “These findings confirm that body image related factors are valued benefits of breastfeeding, but these are rarely mentioned in breastfeeding promotion efforts, most likely as this might be perceived as a selfish reason to breastfeed.

“I would argue, does it matter if it gets mums breastfeeding?”

She added: “Some of the difficulties that may be experienced are often underplayed too.

“We need to be more honest about what to expect and by doing so we can better manage expectations.

“We have developed a resource for young people which aims to do exactly this which is available at: www.babyfeeding.lboro.ac.uk.”

Earlier this week, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) released a report which said that only 30% of mothers were still breastfeeding six to eight weeks after birth.

And only one in every 200 women continues the practice beyond their child’s first birthday, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Dr Haycraft, who co-authored the study, highlighted the worryingly low statistics which revealed how many mothers continue to breastfeed after six months.

“Women in the UK are far less likely to breastfeed their children than in any other country in the world,” she said.

“The British Science Association recently published figures which said that by 12 months the UK has the lowest rates of breastfeeding worldwide at just 0.5%.

“Compare this to rates in Scandinavia, where 98% of women breastfeed immediately after birth and 80% are still doing so at six months.

“In the UK only 80% of women adopt breastfeeding in the first place, and the figure plummets to just 25% at six months.  More needs to be done to support those who want to breastfeed to continue to do so.”

Examples of some of the perceived benefits of breastfeeding as identified by mothers who took part in the study

Returning to pre-pregnancy body shape

“I've lost 2.5 stone in 7 months and I think that’s partly due to breastfeeding”

“I lost the baby weight quicker than friends who didn’t breastfeed”

“It helped my uterus contract faster”

“Uterus shrunk back quicker”

“Tummy reduced quickly after birth”

“Helped stomach return to almost normal quicker”

“Health benefits (for mother and/or child)”

“Reduces cancer risks, reduces weight, reduces diabetes and other health benefits to baby”

Physical benefits

“Immediately, better hormonal regulation”

“My skin and hair still look great”

Eating benefits

“I was able to eat more food without gaining weight”

“I’m smaller than pre-pregnancy and I eat like a horse!”

“I also ate healthier than I normally would as I was aware that I was feeding my baby”

“I can eat more because I burn more calories”

Psychological

“I feel comfortable in my own skin!”

“Proud my body was able to do it”

“Made me a more confident, less shy person”

“Made me feel more comfortable with my body”

“Mood more balanced”

“It made it feel useful”