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Experts say even infants who are breastfed for only a few days can benefit. Aks Huckleberry/500px/Getty Images
  • Researchers say that babies who are breastfed for even a short period of time have lower blood pressure and better heart health.
  • Experts say this is because breast milk contains hormones that set the stage for better long-term health outcomes.
  • Officials recommend babies should be breastfed until they’re 6 months old, but only 1 in 4 infants is breastfed for that period of time.

Babies who are breastfed for any length of time have lower blood pressure at 3 years of age.

That’s the conclusion of a study published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA) that analyzed data from more than 2,000 children to determine the relationship between breastfeeding and blood pressure.

“We observed that children who were ever breastfed had lower blood pressure at the age of 3 years, even if they only briefly received early limited breastfeeding in the first few days of life,” the study authors wrote.

“Although the clinical relevance of these associations remains to be determined, these early differences in blood pressure could translate into meaningful reductions in the risk of cardiovascular disease later [in] life and associated healthcare cost savings,” the authors added.

Of the 2,382 children studied, 49 were never breastfed, while 98 were breastfed only during their hospitalization in their early days of life.

The researchers found that at age 3, blood pressure was higher in the children who were never breastfed. Those who were only breastfed in the first few days of life had lower blood pressure when compared to their non-breastfed peers.

Dr. Susan Crowe, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University in California, said it’s not surprising babies who are breastfed for only a few days receive the same benefits of lower blood pressure later in life.

“The first milk, colostrum, is full of active hormones that may set the stage for healthy outcomes long term. This study suggests that there is something important in colostrum that can have an impact even if only consumed during the early days after birth,” Crowe told Healthline.

“We know that colostrum is a concentrated form of milk that contains bioactive compounds such as growth factors, stem cells, and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that influence the microbiome and may impact vascular endothelium, paving the way for healthier cardiovascular outcomes,” she added.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breastfeeding can have a variety of health benefits for both infants and mothers.

Infants who are breastfed have a reduced risk of obesity, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome, type 1 diabetes, severe lower respiratory disease, gastrointestinal infections, ear infections, and necrotizing enterocolitis for preterm infants.

Breastfeeding can also be beneficial to the mother. Mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk for breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

The CDC recommends babies be exclusively breastfed until the age of 6 months, but only 1 in 4 infants in the United States are exclusively breastfed for that long.

Low breastfeeding rates account for more than $3 billion a year in medical costs for mothers and children in the United States.

About 60 percent of U.S. mothers stop breastfeeding earlier than they planned.

The researchers of the JAHA study said their findings highlight the importance of adequate postpartum lactation support for mothers.

“Our findings have potentially important implications for healthcare practice and policy. They emphasize the importance of antenatal education and immediate postpartum lactation support to facilitate breastfeeding initiation and provision of colostrum,” the researchers wrote.

“They are especially relevant to hospitals implementing cost containment strategies that could impede breastfeeding initiation, such as early postpartum discharge (often less than 24 hours following a vaginal delivery) and/or elimination of lactation support services on postpartum units. Our results suggest the short‐term savings from these practices could be greatly outweighed by the long‐term costs from resulting cardiovascular health deficits later in life,” they added.

Crowe said if mothers are having difficulty breastfeeding, they should seek help.

“If currently struggling with the establishment or continuation of lactation, I would recommend they seek support from lactation professionals who can often help them overcome hurdles and enable them to reach their breastfeeding goals,” she said.

“As we learn more about the complexities of human milk, we continue to see that lactation can have an important influence on the long-term health of a population,” she added.