Breastfeeding Linked to Lower Blood Pressure Later in Life, Study Suggests

A parent breastfeeds her infant.

Getty/Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

Key Takeaways

  • A new study connects breastfeeding with lower blood pressure readings at age 3.
  • Length of time being breastfed did not impact the lower blood pressure readings meaning even babies breastfed only a few days benefited.
  • Colostrum, a parent's "early milk," contains extra nutrients and components that could have been the reason for the lower blood pressure.

Breast milk is often referred to as “liquid gold.” And now there is another reason it’s being lauded as the perfect food—it has been linked to additional heart health benefits, a new study reveals.

While breast milk has long been known to decrease the likelihood of certain diseases and promote physical and mental development, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association connects breastfeeding with lower blood pressure in the preschool years, too.

This news comes on the heels of movements trying to reduce the pressure parents feel to breastfeed—especially as we transition from “breast is best” to “fed is best” to be inclusive to all parents. This study also removes some of that pressure and allows parents to rest assured that even just breastfeeding for a few days is beneficial to their baby’s heart health.

About the Study

The study followed 2,382 children and included both their feeding methods and blood pressure information. It also controlled for other factors such as birth weight, gestational age, socioeconomic status, and more.

After following the children from birth to age 3, researchers determined 98% of the breastfed children had lower blood pressure readings than those who had never been breastfed. Interestingly, it didn’t matter how long they were breastfed, or even if they were exclusively breastfed; they still had lower blood pressure.

The study's researchers believe that colostrum, the substance produced before the parent's milk comes in, is the reason behind the findings. They also emphasize the need for immediate postpartum lactation support after birth so that babies can receive the benefit of colostrum even if the parent does not go on to breastfeed.

Jenelle Ferry, MD

Colostrum is thicker and more concentrated than later milk and can provide nutrition for the infant in just a few drops. It is especially important for delivering antibodies that boost the newborn immune system and has factors that aid in digestion.

— Jenelle Ferry, MD

It only takes a few drops of colostrum to fill a newborn’s tiny stomach, but it provides extensive benefits, says Jenelle Ferry, MD, a neonatologist at Pediatrix Medical Group of Florida—Tampa Neonatology. Even for parents who don’t plan on breastfeeding, attempting to pump or express the colostrum and give the colostrum through a syringe can be beneficial to the baby.

“It is higher in protein, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, immunoglobulins, and antibodies and is lower in sugar and fat," she says. "Colostrum is thicker and more concentrated than later milk and can provide nutrition for the infant in just a few drops. It is especially important for delivering antibodies that boost the newborn immune system and has factors that aid in digestion.”

Colostrum also has been shown to lower blood pressure in adolescents around 12 years of age, according to Robert Hamilton, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and host of the podcast “The Hamilton Review: Where Kids and Culture Collide.”

“The final factor is the presence in the colostrum of...polyunsaturated fatty acids in high concentrations," Dr. Hamilton says. "Other studies have shown that infants who received high levels of these fatty acids in their diet from an early age had lower blood pressures."

Benefits Start in the Gut

Researchers and parents alike have long wondered why breastmilk makes a positive impact on lifelong health. The reason for this could be that breast milk contains bioactive factors that contribute to organ development, says Dr. Ferry.

“We have increasing evidence that the makeup of microorganisms that colonize our intestines play a role in many health factors, including obesity, cardiovascular health, and high blood pressure,” she says.

According to Dr. Ferry, breast milk helps create a balanced and healthy microbiome and affects atherogenesis (fatty plaque buildup in blood vessels). It also contains growth factors, stem cells, and immune factors that contribute to cardiovascular health and decrease the chances of obesity.

Breast milk also contains fatty acids that are essential because our bodies don’t make them and they must come from our diet. These acids are crucial building blocks for cells. Dr. Ferry also emphasizes that each parent's breast milk has different components, uniquely and specifically designed for their infant’s needs.

“Learning about the seemingly endless benefits to both mother and child can help you realize what an important role you are playing in your child’s life,” she says.

Educating Parents About Benefits Without Pressure

While scientists have concluded breast milk is an extremely healthy decision for both the parent and the baby, there still exists a divide between what they know and what parents know at birth. Obstetricians, pediatricians, and lactation consultants alike are working together to educate parents about the benefits of breast milk without adding a lot of pressure.

Kathy Murphy, PA-C, IBCLC

Even a few days of breastfeeding at the beginning may have really big impacts and they don’t have to think about 6 months on the first day.

— Kathy Murphy, PA-C, IBCLC

Still, it's important to educate parents about the importance of early feeds at the breast so they can make an informed decision. It also helps to have a plan in place before the birth, says Kathy Murphy, PA-C, IBCLC, a lactation consultant with SimpliFed.

“I really try to help families keep focused on the immediate and short-term. Even a few days of breastfeeding at the beginning may have really big impacts and they don’t have to think about 6 months on the first day,” she says.

Parents who are stressed about breastfeeding or focused on reaching certain milestones, such as 6 months or 1 year, may become overwhelmed. Instead, they need to hear information like that provided by this study—that babies can benefit even from just a few hours or days of breastfeeding.

Other Benefits of Breastfeeding

Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding, which can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer as well as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular issues. Breastfeeding can even promote weight loss, decrease bleeding in the postpartum period, and help return the uterus to its prepregnancy size more quickly, says Deedra Franke, RN, BSN, IBCLC at Mercy Medical Center.

Meanwhile, breastfed babies have decreased risks of ear infections, respiratory, and GI infections, as well as fewer allergy incidents, she says. But a parent who is breastfeeding because they feel pressured may come to resent it, which can cause more mental health issues than benefits. Doctors and parents should work together to determine if breastfeeding is right for each particular family.

“Breastfeeding can be tough in the early weeks, which is normal," says Franke. "During pregnancy, educate yourself prenatally on how breastfeeding works and reach out to a lactation consultant if you experience any problems in the first 1 to 2 months.”

What This Means for You

Breastfeeding has a multitude of health benefits for the breastfeeding parent and their baby, including lowered risks of certain diseases and conditions. One of those, the new study suggests, is that the baby can have lower blood pressure at age 3 (and later, according to previous research) than babies who have never been breastfed. Plus, the babies only needed to be breastfed for a few days to reap the benefits of the colostrum or early milk. This fact can be a relief to parents who were unable to breastfeed for longer, or chose not to.

1 Source
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  1. Miliku K, Moraes TJ, Becker AB, et al. Breastfeeding in the first days of life is associated with lower blood pressure at 3 years of age. J Am Heart Assoc. 2021 Aug 3;10(15):e019067. doi:10.1161/JAHA.120.019067

By Alexandra Frost
Alexandra Frost is a freelance journalist and content marketing writer with a decade of experience, and a passion for health and wellness topics. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Glamour, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, Business Insider, and more.