When you think about the benefits of breastfeeding, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For most parents, it’s the focus on baby’s health. While there is plenty of evidence that breastfed babies have less chance of gastrointestinal infections, respiratory disease and long-term chronic conditions like asthma and allergies, there is another set of benefits that doesn’t get much attention: the benefits of breastfeeding for a mother and family.

There is a common assumption in American culture that breastfeeding is something a mother does for her baby at her own expense and inconvenience. Breastfeeding certainly has its pros and cons, and families should consider all of these when making their infant feeding decisions. But what if we spent more time focusing on the benefits for a mother, rather than making breastfeeding women out to be martyrs?

Decreased risk of cancer and heart disease

Moms who breastfeed have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer in their lifetimes. In fact, a large study showed that for every 12 months of breastfeeding, there was a 4.3 percent reduction in breast cancer risk and 28 percent reduction in ovarian cancer risk. When it comes to cardiovascular disease, women who breastfed had lower incidence of risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, and were therefore less likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetimes. For both cancer and heart disease, it seems the longer amount of time women breastfeed, the more protection they have.

Increased spacing between children

Women who breastfeed exclusively (meaning they do not give formula or solid foods) typically have a period after birth when they are not menstruating or ovulating. This is called lactation amenorrhea, and usually lasts at least six months. This state of lessened fertility makes pregnancy less likely in the postpartum period. This is nature’s way of providing some space between children so the mother’s body can adequately recover from the stress of pregnancy and childbirth. It also allows her to focus on keeping her baby safe and well-nourished before the attention is focused on a new child.

Faster return to pre-pregnancy weight 

Women who breastfeed tend to give their babies an average of 500 calories per day. This allows them to give some of the “baby weight” back to the baby over time. Weight loss after a pregnancy is typically easier and faster for women who breastfeed. Often, this gradual weight loss occurs in spite of increased appetite.

Easier nights, less mess, fewer dishes to wash 

Many families take note of the convenience of breastfeeding. For a breastfeeding mom who is sleeping with her baby in proximity, it can be as easy as reaching over to nurse and snuggle a baby during the night. Families don’t have to be concerned about the safety or cleanliness of breastmilk, they don’t have to awaken in the night to prepare a bottle, and they don’t have to wash a bottle when it’s done.

Saving money

Most estimates say breastfeeding saves families at least $1,000 per year in formula costs. Also, since breast-fed babies typically make fewer trips to the doctor, families save on medical costs and experience less financial hardship from missed work.

At the end of the day, breastfeeding is not just about a baby. It requires a mother who is happy and excited about breastfeeding, as well as a network of supportive family members. With the focus on the family rather than just the baby, we can start to understand the full benefits of a long, enjoyable nursing relationship.

Ann Ledbetter is a certified nurse midwife and certified lactation consultant at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers.

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