Obesity and Breastfeeding: What Are the Risks?

Many governments and health agencies around the world recommend breastfeeding babies exclusively for the first 6 months of their life. ‘Breast is best’ is because breast milk is designed to provide the best possible nutrition for the growth and development of human babies. Breastfed infants experience fewer earaches, and episodes of diarrhea.

Key takeaways:

They also don’t tend to get asthma. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease later in the infant’s life.

Obesity and breastfeeding – the relationship:

The number of obese people increases each year around the world. Currently, approximately 40% of women between the age of 20 and 39 in the US are obese. There is some research suggesting that the quality and quantity of milk from obese breastfeeding mothers is different from breast milk produced by mothers of normal weight. Recent research indicates that normal-weight mothers produce larger quantities and more nutritious breast milk.

Obese mothers face complications during pregnancy and childbirth at higher levels than women of normal weight. These include premature birth, hypertension, and gestational diabetes. Due to the complications during pregnancy, obese mothers tend to have more C-section deliveries. The post-op discomfort from the C-section can inhibit the success of initiating breastfeeding.

After childbirth, the levels of progesterone drop and this is a signal to the breast to begin producing milk. Progesterone is stored in the adipose tissue (fat) resulting in the obese mother not experiencing a significant drop in progesterone. The consistent release of progesterone from the adipose tissue delays the beginning of milk production.

Obesity and breastfeeding complications

Babies of obese breastfeeding mothers often have a difficult time latching onto the breast properly. This is thought to be because the breast is too large for the baby to latch on properly. Delayed milk production can also contribute to the latching-on problem. If the hungry baby is not promptly rewarded with milk, it may lose the latch.

Quantity of breast milk

If the baby is unable to latch on properly, it can result in the breasts not being emptied. This can cause a gradual decrease in the milk produced by the breasts. Obesity is associated with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, which can cause delayed milk production after birth and low milk production.

There is evidence that many obese people suffer from chronic inflammation. Inflammation in obese breastfeeding mothers can decrease the amount of milk produced even when the breasts are emptied during breastfeeding.

Quality of breast milk

Because obese people generally do not have a good diet, this can affect the ingredients in the breast milk of obese mothers. Basically, what the mother eats is what her baby gets in the breast milk.

Mothers who decide to breastfeed clearly want to do the best thing for their babies. Mothers with lower than normal breast milk volume generally have decreased amounts of certain fatty acids in their breast milk. The breast tissue needs fatty acids for energy, and the breast also needs to transfer fatty acids to the breast milk. The decrease of certain fatty acids in breastmilk may be the cause of low milk volume.

Breast milk contains omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Increased consumption of omega-6 fatty acids increases inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to reduce inflammation. The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 4:1. However, the ratio is way out of balance in the Standard American Diet (SAD), often at around 15:1.

Omega-6 fatty acids are stored in the adipose tissue of the mother, which is where the omega-6 fatty acids in breast milk come from. The more omega-6 fatty acids in the mother’s diet, the more omega-6 fatty acids in her breast milk.

Researchers found that when breast milk contained higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, the babies were less fussy. The researchers observed that omega-3 fatty acids in breast milk reduced the stress and sadness experienced by babies. The mechanism for this is not known.

Improve the quality of breast milk of obese mothers

Obese mothers might not realize how their diet affects their breast milk. They might not even know what a healthy diet looks like.

It is recommended that breastfeeding mothers get professional help with their diet to avoid nutritional deficiencies when trying to improve their diet. This can be tricky because an exclusively breastfed baby takes a lot of calories from the mother. This can help with weight loss, but it is important that mother and baby get a nutritionally balanced diet.

A balanced diet and moderate exercise can help the mother to lose weight and improve the quality of her breast milk. Decreasing omega-6 fatty acids and increasing omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation for both mother and baby. Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids can make for a happier baby which makes for a happier mother.

The rate of obesity is increasing every year. It is recommended that obese women receive counseling related to the risks of obesity during pregnancy and after childbirth. Weight loss and exercise programs can help prior to becoming pregnant to minimize the risk of complications.

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