The benefits of breastfeeding over formula feeding for babies are well-known — a decreased risk of respiratory diseases like asthma, less childhood obesity, and enhanced neural and brain development to name a few. There are also major health benefits to mothers who breastfeed including lower risks for type two diabetes as well as ovarian and breast cancers.

Breastfeeding does even more, a recent meta-analysis found. It can help promote longterm cardiac health. The study, by researchers at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Innsbruck, Austria, looked at the findings of studies of breastfeeding outcomes conducted in the United States, Japan, Australia, China and Norway. Data on over 1.2 million women whose an average age at first birth was 25 were included in the analysis.

The age of mothers or the number of pregnancies they had had did not appear to have any impact on the benefits gained from breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is extremely common. Over 82 percent of the respondents identifying as women said they had breastfed at some point in their lives. The study also found women who breastfed enjoyed a number of health benefits.

Compared to their formula-feeding counterparts, women who breastfed:

  • had an 11 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease
  • had a 14 percent decreased risk of developing coronary heart disease
  • were 12 percent less likely to experience a stroke
  • were 17 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease

The greatest benefits from breastfeeding appeared to kick in after a year of the practice. It didn’t appear that the age of mothers or the number of pregnancies had any impact on the benefits gained from breastfeeding.

Current guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest that children should be exclusively breastfed through six months of age. Still, many parents choose not to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, from cultural influences to personal preference. Sometimes babies’ difficulty latching on makes the choice for parents.

Black and Hispanic babies were less likely than white infants to be breastfed, the analysis found. This may be because hospitals often do not offer lactation consulting to Black families and may instead push formula as an option. Inequalities in the labor market mean that Black mothers are more likely to have to return to work within twelve weeks of giving birth, and more frequently face inflexible hours that make taking advantage of workplace lactation rooms difficult or impossible.

Still, researchers hope that these findings can be used to encourage parents who are able to breast- or chest-feed for at least six months following the birth of a child. Knowing that doing so has benefits not only for the baby but also for the breastfeeding parent may just tip the scales for some parents who are trying to decide how best to feed their babies.

If you are a new or expecting parent who wants to breastfeed for your health and the health of your child, know your rights.

“It’s important for women to be aware of the benefits of breastfeeding for their babies’ health and also their own personal health,” senior author, Peter Willeit, professor of clinical epidemiology at the Medical University of Innsbruck, said. “Moreover, these findings from high-quality studies conducted around the world highlight the need to encourage and support breastfeeding, such as breastfeeding-friendly work environments, and breastfeeding education and programs for families before and after giving birth.”

If you are a new or expecting mother who wants to breastfeed for your health and the health of your child, you have rights. Know your state’s workplace laws — you may be entitled to time and a designated lactation space to pump and reserve milk while you are at work. Seek the help of a lactation consultant if you are struggling to breastfeed. And most of all, enjoy the process of feeding and bonding with your baby, knowing that you’re doing the best thing for your heart and your baby’s lifelong health.

The study is available in the Journal of the American Heart Association.