January 2016

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Breastfeeding May Help Health After Gestational Diabetes

A study suggests that breastfeeding may help women with a history of gestational diabetes from later developing type 2 diabetes.

About 5-9% of pregnant women nationwide develop high blood sugar levels even though they didn’t have diabetes before pregnancy. This condition, called gestational diabetes, raises a woman’s risk for type 2 diabetes later in life. Left untreated, type 2 diabetes can cause health problems such as heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, and amputation.

Past studies found that breastfeeding causes certain changes in the mother’s body that may help protect against type 2 diabetes. However, the connection hadn’t been proven, especially among women who’d had gestational diabetes. An NIH-funded research team at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research set out to address the question.

The team enrolled more than 1,000 ethnically diverse women who were diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Their lactation intensity and duration were assessed by feeding diaries, in-person exams, phone calls, and questionnaires. Researchers tested blood sugar 6 to 9 weeks after delivery and then annually for 2 years.

During the 2-year follow-up, nearly 12% of the women developed type 2 diabetes. After accounting for differences in age and other risk factors, the researchers estimated that women who exclusively breastfed or mostly breastfed were about half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as those who didn’t breastfeed.

How long women breastfed also affected their chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Breastfeeding for longer than 2 months lowered the risk of type 2 diabetes by almost half. Breastfeeding beyond 5 months lowered the risk by more than half.

“These findings highlight the importance of prioritizing breastfeeding education and support for women with gestational diabetes as part of early diabetes prevention efforts,” says study lead Dr. Erica P. Gunderson.