Breastfeeding and Diabetes
Breastfeeding has many proven health benefits for mothers and babies, including helping to prevent diabetes.
Breastfeeding is a simple and natural process that helps give your baby a head start to a healthier life. Even if you have diabetes, you can and should plan to breastfeed for at least six months.
Breastfed babies have lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes and becoming overweight or obese later in life, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. They’re also less likely to have asthma, eczema, respiratory disease, ear infections and other serious health problems.
Breastfeeding can lower a mother’s risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis and arthritis. It may also help you lose the weight you put on during pregnancy and recover from childbirth more quickly.
During late pregnancy, some women develop blood sugar (blood glucose) levels that are too high (hyperglycemia) even though they didn’t have diabetes before getting pregnant. If you have this condition, called gestational diabetes, you’re at greater risk for type 2 diabetes later in life. But the good news is that breastfeeding can reduce your risk because it helps your body process glucose and insulin better.
How long you breastfeed also affects your chance of developing type 2 diabetes. In one study, breastfeeding for longer than two months lowered the risk by almost half. Breastfeeding beyond five months lowered it even more.
Some babies whose mothers have diabetes or experience gestational diabetes are born with low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This doesn’t mean they need formula supplementation or cannot be breastfed. An infant’s low blood sugar is often best treated by early breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact with the mother.
When you’re expecting
If you have diabetes (type 1 or type 2), it’s important to see your doctor before getting pregnant. Uncontrolled gestational diabetes can hurt your baby. So be sure to work with your health care team to control your blood sugar throughout pregnancy.
Watch how many carbohydrates you eat. Work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to make a food plan with the right balance of insulin and carbohydrates.
With type 1 diabetes, you may need less insulin in early pregnancy but then quickly need more in the second and early third trimesters—because of changes in your body’s sensitivity to insulin.
After your baby is born
Gestational diabetes can be an early warning that you’re at risk for type 2 diabetes later in life. See your doctor to get tested one to three months after your baby is born. And take steps to lower your risk: eat healthy, manage your weight and be more active.
Most diabetes medications, including insulin and metformin, are safe to use while breastfeeding. But check with your doctor, as the amount of insulin you need may change. Breastfeeding may also make your blood sugar a little harder to predict, so monitor it closely.
Breastfeeding is sometimes more challenging than expected. Getting support can help. Ask about peer groups and professional resources, such as a lactation consultant.
If you’re not able to breastfeed, formula is also a good choice. Be sure to use a commercially prepared infant formula instead of making your own or using store bought milk that usually comes from a cow. These formulas are designed to provide the proteins, sugars, fats and vitamins your baby needs, the same way breastmilk does.
While formula feeding doesn’t offer all the benefits of breastfeeding, the most important thing is to nourish your child. If you have trouble breastfeeding at first or you don’t produce enough milk, discuss this with your OB/GYN or another health care professional. Keep trying while you supplement with formula or use donor milk. You can also feed your child with pumped breastmilk and you will probably need to pump regularly.
Breastfeeding tips for mothers with diabetes
- Breastfeed as soon as you can after delivery.
- Get lots of skin-to-skin contact with your baby and nurse several times a day in the beginning.
- Stay relaxed, and be patient while your milk comes in.
- Have a snack before or during nursing. And keep something nearby to raise your blood sugar quickly if needed.
- Be sure to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
- Check your blood sugar levels each time before and after nursing.