Can Breastfeeding Lower Risk of Childhood Cancer?

Biological mechanisms of breast milk may have preventative effect.

Biological mechanisms of breast milk may have preventative effect.

The nutrients provided by breast milk may actually go far beyond basic health and actually prevent serious disease, a recent study indicates.

The study, published online by JAMA Pediatrics, found that breastfeeding for 6 months or longer was linked with a lower childhood leukemia risk compared with infants who were either never breastfed or breastfed for a shorter duration. The study noted that breast milk is meant to provide all the nutritional needs of children, with current recommendations indicating infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life for optimal growth, development, and health.

The researchers evaluated 18 studies on the link between breastfeeding and childhood leukemia, which showed that breastfeeding for 6 months or longer was associated with a 19% lower leukemia risk compared with not breastfeeding or breastfeeding for a shorter period of time. A separate evaluation of 15 studies showed children who were ever breastfed had an 11% lower risk of childhood leukemia compared with children who were never breastfed.

The researchers concluded that breast milk has several biological mechanisms that may explain the results, such as the presence of immunologically active components and anti-inflammatory defense mechanisms that influence immune system development.

"Because the primary goal of public health is prevention of morbidity, health care professionals should be taught the potential health benefits of breastfeeding and given tools to assist mothers with breastfeeding, whether themselves or with referrals to others who can help,” the authors wrote. “The many potential preventive health benefits of breastfeeding should also be communicated openly to the general public, not only to mothers, so breastfeeding can be more socially accepted and facilitated. In addition, more high-quality studies are needed to clarify the biological mechanisms underlying this association between breastfeeding and lower childhood leukemia morbidity.”