PUBLISHED ON: 23 March 2016

Breastfeeding – an age old debate. With hosts of stories in the media wrangling with the pros and cons of breastfeeding, it can be difficult to remove the fact from the fiction. And while we know that there can be some important benefits for both mum and baby, the ‘breast is best’ message often leads to those who don’t breastfeed feeling unfairly judged.

Can breastfeeding reduce the risk of breast cancer?

There is a wide range of health benefits associated with breastfeeding, but recent news stories have highlighted the reduction in breast cancer risk for breastfeeding mums. Rumours often circulate that breastfeeding for 6 months or more can reduce your risk of breast cancer by 50% – but this is an over-estimation.

Breastfeeding your children slightly reduces your risk of breast cancer, and the longer you breastfeed in total, the more your risk of breast cancer is reduced. For example, breastfeeding one child for one year would lower your risk of breast cancer as much as breastfeeding two children for six months each. Current research suggests that breastfeeding can reduce a woman’s breast cancer risk by around 2%.

While it’s not fully understood how breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer, it could be because it delays the return of a woman’s period after childbirth, and changes the balance of hormones in the body.

Should I breastfeed to reduce my risk of breast cancer?

It’s not yet possible to predict who will get breast cancer, and for women who have been diagnosed with the disease, it is not possible to say what caused it to develop. This is because there is no single cause of breast cancer – it results from a combination of our genes, the way we live our lives and the surrounding environment.

There are many important benefits associated with breastfeeding for both mother and child, but the decision to breastfeed needs to be a personal one. While many women breastfeed, not all women choose to and others find it difficult or are unable to for a number of reasons.

When deciding whether to breastfeed, you should consider the benefits for both you and your child, as well as the practical issues associated with breastfeeding. Breastfeeding can reduce the risk of breast cancer, but only slightly, and there other things that can do to reduce your risk.

Maintaining a healthy weight, limiting the amount of alcohol you drink and making sure you get 30 minutes of physical activity a day can all help to reduce your risk of breast cancer. Leading a healthy lifestyle isn’t a guarantee against breast cancer, but it can help lower the chances of the disease developing.

More information

Find out more about reducing your breast cancer risk, or visit our publications page to download our booklet, Breast Cancer Risk: The Facts.