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Breastfeeding Protects Children From Blood Cancer

Childhood leukemia prevention

Breastfeeding has multiple benefits both for the mother as well as the child.

Apart from providing passive immunity, adequate nutrition, building a strong bond between the child and the mother, and preventing maternal breast cancer, it may reduce the incidence of blood cancer in children.

A recent study highlighted the importance of breastfeeding in preventing blood cancer in breast-fed children.

Key points of the Study:

  1. Research says that breastfeeding for 3 or more months may lead to the prevention of a specific cancer in childhood called B-cell precursor ALL (BCP-ALL)
  2. The results come after analyzing over 300,00 Danish children between 2005 and 2018.
  3. Among those kids, those who breastfed for a minimum of 3 months had a lower chance of cancer than kids who were breastfed for a lesser period.
  4. However, the results indicated a significant risk reduction in the incidence of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (BCP-ALL in particular)
  5. The study supports the findings of other smaller research bodies, suggesting that breastfeeding does play a role in reducing the risk of leukemia.

Breastfeeding and Childhood Leukemia Prevention:

breastfeeding cancer prevention

Breast milk is a proper source of food coupled with antibodies, which can help fight infections and protect against diseases like pneumonia.

The term exclusive breastfeeding means the infant is to be given only breast milk for the first six months as recommended by the WHO [ref].

However, only 38% of the infants worldwide are exclusively breastfed.

Furthermore, the benefits are not restricted to this aspect of health only, studies have linked breastfeeding with cancers of the nervous and urinary systems [ref].

While researchers are unaware of the exact mechanism that goes behind this they believe that breast milk plays a role in strengthening the baby’s immune system.

Even though childhood cancers are rare they are still devastating for families. While more research is needed to understand the connection completely, the current evidence suggests it could be a significant factor.

A study published in JAMA Network Open linked exclusive breastfeeding with lower chances of cancers, especially BCP-ALL (B-cell precursor Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia).

The table summarizes some important data here:

Risk Reduction with Exclusive Breastfeeding


Hematologic CancersAHR: 0.66 (95% CI: 0.46-0.95)
B-Cell Precursor ALL (BCP-ALL)AHR: 0.62 (95% CI: 0.39-0.99)
Central Nervous System TumorsAHR: 0.96 (95% CI: 0.51-1.88)
Solid TumorsAHR: 0.87 (95% CI: 0.55-1.41)

AHR: Adjusted Hazard Ratio; CI: Confidence Interval

Breastfeeding for a longer time lowers the chance of childhood BCP-ALL. This supports what other studies have found. To help plan ways to prevent it, we need more research on why this happens.


Methods and Findings:

The current study included over 300,000 kids from 2005 to 2018. They examined how breastfeeding duration can influence the risks of cancer.

Over 332 children were diagnosed with a cancer form between ages 1 and 14. In this case, longer periods of exclusive breastfeeding were associated with lower risks of hematologic cancers like ALL.

Researchers found no significant link between breastfeeding durations and other types of cancers.

However, they have concluded that breastfeeding is protective against acute lymphoblastic leukemia. They have also called for further research to understand the exact mechanisms.


Prevalence of Childhood Leukemia

  • Rates and trends of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia:

The Children’s University Hospital of Damascus University conducted an epidemiology study in 2020. They found that acute lymphoblastic leukemia was almost 25% more prevalent in childhood. [ref]

  • Childhood Blood Cancer Facts and Statistics (2023) by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS):

This resource reports that from 2012 to 2016, leukemia represented 24.7% of all cancers diagnosed in children under 20.

Later, the updated report states that leukemia accounts for 25.1% of all cancers in children and adolescents under 20 from 2015 to 2019. [ref]

  • Key Statistics for Childhood Leukemia (2023) by the American Cancer Society:

The prevalence might not be as high. This page emphasizes that while leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, it’s still rare, affecting around 3 in 100,000 children each year. [ref]

  • Cancer Research UK – Childhood leukemia statistics (2023):

This resource provides statistics for the UK, reporting that around 800 children are diagnosed with leukemia in the UK each year. [ref]


Importance of Breastfeeding

This is a powerful tool to protect infants from harmful diseases. As a natural immunity booster, it is packed with antibodies that are passed directly from mother to baby.

These antibodies can help prevent and fight infection by reducing the risk of ear infections, diarrhea, and respiratory illnesses like pneumonia.

Research has also signified the link between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome. This link of breastfeeding is also found with type 1 diabetes and obesity.

Apart from fighting infections, it can also promote a healthy gut microbiome in infants. Also, breastfeeding is a win-win for both mothers and the well-fed babies.


Importance of breastfeeding for mother

This practice shows benefits for the physical and emotional health of mothers. After delivery, breastfeeding can trigger the release of oxytocin which plays a vital role in shrinking your uterus back to its normal size.

This can reduce postpartum bleeding and discomfort. Furthermore, it aids in weight loss by burning calories as your body produces milk which will help you shed baby weight steadily.

After that, the emotional benefits are prominent as well. Research has shown a relationship between breastfeeding and a lower risk of postpartum depression [ref].

This can attributed to the decrease in pregnancy hormones once breastfeeding is initiated, which can promote emotional stability.

Also, the intimate connection between a mother and her baby is strong enough to provide a sense of comfort and closeness.


Does Breastfeeding Reduce the Risk of Breast Cancer?

Yes! There have been numerous studies indicating a preventive role in reducing breast cancer risk.

Breastfeeding is especially important for women with a family history of breast cancer.

Women in the UK have a 15% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. This is partly because of low rates of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding may reduce the incidence of breast cancer by 4.3% if continued for one year.

Below is a summary table highlighting how breastfeeding helps prevent breast cancer [Ref].

Factors Influencing the Risk of Breast Cancer

Percentage Decrease in Breast Cancer Risk

Breastfeeding duration4.3% decrease for every 12 months of breastfeeding
Number of births7.0% decrease in risk for each birth

Types of Breast Cancer Affected

Triple-Negative Breast Cancer20% decrease in risk with breastfeeding
Carriers of BRCA1 mutations22-50% decrease in risk with breastfeeding

Breastfeeding may lower the incidence of HER2+ (Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2 positive) type of breast cancer but has little impact on HR+ (Hormone receptor positive) breast cancer.


In conclusion:

Breastfeeding has multiple benefits. This study highlights the importance of breastfeeding in preventing acute leukemia in children.

Specifically, breastfeeding reduced the incidence of B-cell precursor ALL (BCP-ALL).

Breastfeeding should be promoted at every level. A proper written handout should be given to all women after childbirth adding the benefits of breastfeeding their child.


What do you think?

Written by Dr. Ahmed

I am Dr. Ahmed (MBBS; FCPS Medicine), an Internist and a practicing physician. I am in the medical field for over fifteen years working in one of the busiest hospitals and writing medical posts for over 5 years.

I love my family, my profession, my blog, nature, hiking, and simple life. Read more about me, my family, and my qualifications

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