In a beautiful old home in downtown Charleston, 3-month-old Josephine is nursing quietly. Josephine’s mother, Sarah Brown, is a middle-class well-educated woman.
“It’s a big convenience factor for me – you know I’ve got everything I need right there,” said Brown.
“I don’t have to worry about going to make bottles. I don’t have to worry about taking things with me when I go out places. It’s just a really convenient way to feed her.”
But many West Virginia mothers don’t breastfeed their babies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that’s bad for public health. More specifically, “it may be bad for moms’ hearts.
“Breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer and diabetes for the mother,” said Cria Perrine, head of the infant-feeding team for the CDC. “More recent emerging evidence has shown a reduced risk for heart disease.”
So how could breastfeeding reduce the risk of heart disease exactly? Perrine explains that during pregnancy your body changes to support the extra life inside you. During that time you naturally build up cholesterol.
“When a woman breastfeeds, a lot of that cholesterol gets excreted in breastmilk,” said Perrine. “So by breastfeeding it helps reduce those levels back down to where they were before a woman became pregnant.”
In short,, recent research has found that pregnancy makes the cardiovascular system work harder, putting women at higher risk for heart disease. Breastfeeding may help mothers return that system to the pre-pregnancy state.
But West Virginia has some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the country, according to the CDC Breastfeeding Report Card released this week.
Kimberly Kelly is an associate professor at the WVU School of Pharmacy who coauthored a study on women’s awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding for moms.The women Kelly surveyed for the study lived in Appalachia, were already lactating, and were well-educated.
“They were already thinking of breastfeeding,” said Kelly. “But for some reason they didn’t make the association between cardiovascular disease.”
Not one study participant knew breastfeeding could reduce the risk of heart disease. This isn’t super surprising since the research showing the correlation is only about a decade old. But it is of concern considering that the CDC reports West Virginians have the 11th highest rate of heart disease in the country. Yet in West Virginia 65 percent of women breastfeed, compared to a national average of 81 percent.
But let's not get too excited.
“Breastfeeding alone is not going to be sufficient to prevent heart disease,” said Perrine. “Things like diet and physical activity and smoking are all critical factors, but understanding all the risk factors, so we can do as much as we can to prevent [it], is important for everyone.”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.