Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance human bodies need. Too much cholesterol in your blood, however, builds-up on artery walls and leads to heart disease and stroke. Breastfeeding babies experience high cholesterol levels while nursing and it is believed cholesterol in breast milk plays an important role in health well beyond the nursing years. Pregnant women also experience a safe and natural rise in cholesterol levels during pregnancy and early lactation.
Significance to Baby
For a baby, cholesterol is a fat critical to brain development. "Breast milk contains a lot of cholesterol, while infant formulas currently contain none,” says Dr. William Sears M.D., Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, and author of over 30 childcare books. “Low-in-cholesterol may be good news for adult diets, but not for babies.” Naturally occurring breast milk fats, in fact, are easily and highly absorbable by a baby. While synthetic infant formulas are beginning to include fatty acids, the absorption of these additives is less effective than in breast milk.
Significance to Mother
Women naturally have high cholesterol and overall lipid levels during and after pregnancy. Mothers who breastfeed, however, may see their lipid levels return to a their pre-pregnancy range three times sooner than those who bottle-feed their babies, according to a 1982 study published in the "British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology". To get an accurate cholesterol reading, a 1989 study in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” suggests women refrain from having their cholesterol checked until after breastfeeding is complete.
Breastfed babies and breastfeeding mothers seem to fare better than others when it comes to healthy hearts. A 2002 study in “Pediatrics” (the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) and a 2008 study in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” both concluded that breastfed infants maintained lower cholesterol levels throughout adulthood. These studies suggest that by consuming cholesterol as infants, breastfed babies’ better-managed cholesterol into adulthood. Additionally, a May 2009 study in “Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology” suggests the longer a woman breastfeeds, the lower her own chances of developing hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol) and cardiovascular disease after menopause.
There are no symptoms of high cholesterol and most people don’t know that they have it until they’ve been screened. Overweight and obese adults, and those who have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease, are at especially high risk. The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommends that adults aged 20 or older have their cholesterol checked every 5 years. While cholesterol screening is not typically recommended for infants, the CDC does recommend that children over 2 years of age have their cholesterol checked if they are overweight or obese or have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease.
What You Can Do
While the exact benefits of breastfeeding and cholesterol are still being studied, it is evident breastfeeding does provide many advantages to babies and mothers and is proven to reduce the risk for many diseases and conditions beyond high cholesterol. Talk to your doctor and/or pediatrician to discuss breastfeeding baby and when cholesterol tests are right for you and your family.