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 4. “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.
- For a baby, cholesterol is a fat critical to brain development. "
- Low-in-cholesterol may be good news for adult diets, but not for babies.”
Significance to Mother
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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 4. 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 1.
Normal Level of Cholesterol for Children
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.
- There are no symptoms of high cholesterol and most people don’t know that they have it until they’ve been screened.
- 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.
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- "Obstetrics & Gynecology"; Duration of Lactation and Risk Factors for Maternal Cardiovascular Disease; May 2009
- AskDrSears.com: Breastfeeding Builds Brighter Brains
- AskDrSears.com: Comparison of Human Milk and Formula
- "Pediatrics"; Infant Feeding and Cholesterol; September 2002
- American Academy of Family Physicians. High cholesterol. Updated December 5, 2019.
- MedlinePlus. High blood cholesterol levels. Updated February 22, 2018.
- Harvard Health Publishing. How it's made: cholesterol production in the body. Updated July 31, 2019.
- MedlinePlus. Cholesterol levels: what you need to know. Updated April 18, 2019.
- Lepor NE, Vogel RE. Summary of the third report of the National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel III. Rev Cardiovasc Med. 2001;2(3):160-5. doi:10.1001/jama.285.19.2486
- Familial Hypercholestrolemia Foundation. Surprising familial hypercholestrolemia statistics. Updated March 6, 2015.
- Cleveland Clinic. LDL cholesterol and heart health. Updated May 24, 2019.
- Harvard Health Publishing. 11 foods that lower cholesterol. Updated February 6, 2019.
- American Heart Association. Cholesterol medications. Updated November 10, 2018.
- American Heart Association. Prevention and treatment of high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia). Updated April 13, 2017.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease. National Center for Health Statistics. Updated February 21, 2020.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. High blood cholesterol: What you need to know." Updated June 2005.
- Fallon Jr., L. Fleming. "Hypercholesterolemia." Health AtoZ, Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. 2006. The Gale Group.
Over the past 15 years, Amanda Calnan Vowels has written for numerous newspapers as well as "Luxury Living Magazine" and WebMD. As the former communications director for American Red Cross Pacific Northwest Blood Services and a former Donate Life Northwest board member, Vowels is well-versed in organ, tissue and blood donation. Vowels has a journalism degree from University of Portland in Portland, Ore.