Objective To investigate the association between lifetime breast feeding, exclusive breast feeding, postpartum amenorrhea, and incidence of endometriosis among parous women.
Design Prospective cohort study.
Setting Nurses’ Health Study II, 1989-2011.
Participants 72 394 women who reported having one or more pregnancies that lasted at least six months, 3296 of whom had laparoscopically confirmed endometriosis. For each pregnancy, women reported duration of total breast feeding, exclusive breast feeding, and postpartum amenorrhea.
Main outcome measures Incident self reported laparoscopically confirmed endometriosis (96% concordance with medical record) in parous women. Multivariable Cox proportional hazard models were used to calculate hazard ratios and 95% confidence intervals for diagnosis of endometriosis.
Results Duration of total and exclusive breast feeding was significantly associated with decreased risk of endometriosis. Among women who reported a lifetime total length of breast feeding of less than one month, there were 453 endometriosis cases/100 000 person years compared with 184 cases/100 000 person years in women who reported a lifetime total of ≥36 months of breast feeding. For every additional three months of total breast feeding per pregnancy, women experienced an 8% lower risk of endometriosis (hazard ratio 0.92, 95% confidence interval 0.90 to 0.94; P<0.001 for trend) and a 14% lower risk for every additional three months of exclusive breast feeding per pregnancy (0.86, 0.81 to 0.90; P<0.001 for trend). Women who breastfed for ≥36 months in total across their reproductive lifetime had a 40% reduced risk of endometriosis compared with women who never breast fed (0.60, 0.50 to 0.72). The protective association with breast feeding was strongest among women who gave birth within the past five years (P=0.04 for interaction). The association with total breast feeding and exclusive breast feeding on endometriosis was partially influenced by postpartum amenorrhea (% mediated was 34% (95% confidence interval 15% to 59%) for total breast feeding and 57% (27% to 82%) for exclusive breast feeding).
Conclusion Among women who experienced at least one pregnancy that lasted at least six months, breast feeding was inversely associated with risk of incident endometriosis. This association was partially, but not fully, influenced by postpartum amenorrhea, suggesting that breast feeding could influence the risk of endometriosis both through amenorrhea and other mechanisms. Given the chronic and incurable nature of endometriosis, breast feeding should be further investigated as an important modifiable behavior to mitigate risk for pregnant women.