Supporting Breastfeeding

La Leche League Canada

Breastfeeding and Diabetes Prevention

on April 4, 2016

You know breastfeeding provides the nutrition your baby needs. You know that if he wasn’t breastfed he’d have more colds, viruses, infections. But do you know that by breastfeeding, you are helping to ward off diseases that could affect him for the rest of his life?

Let’s look at just one of these: Diabetes. As you probably know, there are two types of diabetes – Type 1 and Type 2. Both are serious illnesses with possible life-threatening complications, and both are on the increase in North America. In Type 1 diabetes, the body stops producing insulin; in Type 2, insulin is still produced but the body’s cells resist letting that insulin transport sugars as it should.

What you might not know is that breastfeeding can help reduce the risk of developing both types of diabetes for the child, and of developing Type 2 diabetes for the mother as well.


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Here’s what the research says:

A 2008 study comparing children who developed Type 1 diabetes with children who did not, reported that “up to one half of the diabetes cases could be attributed to modifiable factors.” In other words, about half the cases could have been prevented. The most important factor, according to these researchers? You probably guessed it: breastfeeding. The longer the baby was breastfed, the less likely he or she was to develop Type 1 diabetes, and the older the baby was when formula or cow’s milk was introduced, the lower the risk as well. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months, with continued breastfeeding as solids are added to the baby’s diet, would provide the most protection.

Another factor identified by researchers is that babies who experience viral infections during the first year are more likely to develop Type 1 diabetes. Those who experience more infections are at greater risk. Breastfeeding, of course, helps to protect babies against infections and so strikes another blow against diabetes.

What about Type 2 diabetes? While there is a genetic component to this disease as well, being overweight or obese is a major risk factor. Babies who are breastfed and who start on solids at around the middle of the first year are less likely to be obese as children and as they grow older. So they are less likely to have Type 2 diabetes as well. There have been a number of studies on effect of breastfeeding on future obesity which have come to varying conclusions. The majority of these studies were retrospective studies i.e. asking mothers to recall their breastfeeding experiences possibly years after the fact. There is an ongoing study that is looking at mothers who have developed gestational diabetes and then following their children. This will allow researchers the best access to data about effects of exposure to maternal metabolism as a fetus and feeding choices on future growth and disease risk.

children at play

Mothers who breastfeed, even those who developed gestational diabetes during their pregnancies, are less likely to develop metabolic syndrome or diabetes later in life. Lactation appears to have a persistent positive effect on women’s cardiometabolic health (Gunderson et al 2010). One factor may be ~ while it doesn’t feel like exercise to us while we’re doing it (unless we have a fussy baby and we’re walking aruond and nursing!) ~ that the calories burned up as our breasts manufacture milk are significant. A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that postmenopausal women had a 1% reduction in BMI (Body Mass Index) for every 6 months they had breastfed.

If you are interested in an in-depth look at strategies for diabetes prevention check out the American Diabetes Association on-line journal Clinical Diabetes.

So breastfeeding provides many layers of protection from this serious illness – as well as from other obesity-related diseases. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the risk becomes zero. As Teresa Pitman says “I have two friends whose children developed Type 1 diabetes:  both children were breastfed for more than a year. And as they deal with insulin pumps and doctor visits, they’d be the first to tell you: breastfeed. Do what you can to reduce the risk. Every time you put your baby to your breast, you’re giving him an amazing gift. “


April 7, 2016 is World Health Day. This year’s theme is “Beat diabetes”.


If you need more information or have a breastfeeding problem or concern, you are strongly encouraged to talk directly to an accredited La Leche League Leader. In Canada, Leaders can be located by clicking or Internationally


If you have found this article helpful, La Leche League Canada would appreciate your support in the form of a donation at so we can continue to help others breastfeed. Thank you!








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