A study recently published in JAMA Neurology suggests that mothers with multiple sclerosis who breastfeed their babies exclusively during the first 2 months after giving birth could increase their chances of a 6-month reprieve from the disease.
Perceptions of multiple sclerosis (MS) have changed radically over the last 60 years. The National MS Society describe how, until 1950, women with MS were advised not to become pregnant, in the belief that the disease would worsen as a result.
On the contrary, the majority of research now not only shows that this is untrue, but it indicates a reduction in relapses during pregnancy, especially in the second and third trimesters, according to the Society.
Indeed, conception, pregnancy and delivery do not seem to be affected by MS. On the other hand, the chance of relapse in the first 6 months after giving birth is well documented.
During pregnancy, the body produces increased levels of corticosteroids as well as proteins that act as natural immunosuppressants. After giving birth, these natural benefits are reduced as hormones return to their pre-pregnancy levels - all of which contribute to a number of effects, including, for women with MS, a 20-30% chance of relapse within the first 3-4 months after delivery.
Now, new research suggests that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 2 months after giving birth could reduce the risk of relapse.
Exclusive breastfeeding reduced risk of MS relapse
A team in Germany, led by Dr. Kerstin Hellwig of Rhur-University Bochum, surveyed 201 women over a 4-year period from 2008 to 2012.
The volunteers, who were registered with the German national MS and pregnancy registry, had expressed their intention either to breastfeed exclusively for 2 months after giving birth (59.7%), not to breastfeed or to breastfeed with regular supplementary feeds.
The findings showed that only 24.2% of the breastfeeding mothers suffered a relapse within the first 6 months after giving birth, in contrast with 38.3% of mothers who either did not breastfeed or did so only partially.
It seems that the mothers who breastfed their babies exclusively for the first 2 months increased their own chances of wellbeing for the first 6 months of motherhood.
Those who did not suffer a relapse at this time did seem to experience a return of symptoms in the second 6 months after giving birth, as they introduced supplemental feeding for their infants and as menstruation returned.
While commenting that the positive effect of breastfeeding "seems to be plausible," the authors of the report recommend that "women with MS should be supported if they choose to breastfeed exclusively," since at the very least, exclusive breastfeeding appears not to increase the chance of a relapse; indeed, they suggest that it may positively offer some relief from the disease at a time when new mothers most need it.
Dr. Hellwig told Medical News Today:
"I think these are very helpful and optimistic findings, as they clearly show that breastfeeding is not harmful [for MS patients]."
Limitations of the study include the fact that the participants had registered voluntarily, and that most of them had been using disease management treatments prior to becoming pregnant.
While breastfeeding is known to be beneficial for infants, a study recently reported by MNT found the practice may also expose infants to toxic chemicals known as perfluorinated alkylate substances (PFASs).