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The benefits of breast milk for babies are numerous. Lower rates of childhood obesity, decreased incidence of asthma and even better brain development are all linked with drinking more of mother's milk in infancy, and despite decades of research and promising marketing claims, the formula industry has not caught up to mother nature in the milk department.
But even if technicians could develop a better food for infants, researchers are now realizing that skipping the lactation phase would be problematic for mothers' health. In fact, not breastfeeding after giving birth seems to put women at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many other serious health conditions.
The mechanisms behind these increased risks are still being sorted out, but researchers think that by not engaging in the process that the body prepares for during pregnancy, many crucial systems can go out of whack. And the effects can last for decades after children are weaned.
"The normal physiology is breastfeeding after pregnancy," says Alison Stuebe, an assistant professor in the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who describes breastfeeding as the fourth trimester of pregnancy. When women cannot or choose not to breastfeed, "there are myriad consequences, and we're just figuring them out," she says.