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Women with epilepsy less likely than controls to breastfeed



The rates of breastfeeding initiation and adherence are lower in women with epilepsy, compared with the general population, according to data presented at the annual meeting of the American Epilepsy Society. Seizure control, education by the treating neurologist, and postpartum lactation consultative support are associated with adherence to breastfeeding, said the researchers.

breastfeeding mother ©Lev Olkha/

“We need to understand and address the challenges that women with epilepsy face beyond seizure control and medication management when they are being seen by various health care providers to ensure the best quality of life for them and their babies,” Abrar Al-Faraj, MD, instructor of neurology at Boston University, said in a press release. “The strong efforts to advocate for breastfeeding in the general population should include women with chronic diseases such as epilepsy.”

A retrospective study of women who underwent pregnancy

Data have established the benefits of breastfeeding in the general population. Recent studies have confirmed that for women with epilepsy and their children, breastfeeding is safe and may provide neurodevelopmental benefits. Data also indicate, however, that rates of breastfeeding are significantly lower in women with epilepsy than in the general population. Dr. Al-Faraj and colleagues sought to compare the rates of initiation of and adherence to breastfeeding in women with epilepsy with those in healthy controls. They also intended to identify the factors that affect breastfeeding in women with epilepsy and assess the influence of support systems (e.g., lactation consult services) on breastfeeding.

The investigators retrospectively studied 102 women with epilepsy who were treated at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) Epilepsy Clinic and underwent pregnancies between 2009 and 2018. They compared these women to 113 healthy controls without epilepsy who were treated at the obstetrical service at BIDMC during the same period. Dr. Al-Faraj and colleagues reviewed patients’ medical records for demographic information, epilepsy type, degree of seizure control during pregnancy and post partum, number of antiepileptic medications (AEDs), breastfeeding education by providers (i.e., neurologists and epilepsy nurses), lactation consult, and rate of initiation of and adherence to breastfeeding at 6 weeks and 3 and 6 months. The investigators excluded from their analysis patients with other chronic medical conditions, those taking medications other than AEDs that may affect breastfeeding, and those with limited follow-up during pregnancy and post partum.

Education and support were correlated with breastfeeding

Participants’ ages ranged from 20 years to 40 years. The rate of breastfeeding initiation was significantly lower in women with epilepsy (51%) than in controls (87%). The rate declined significantly to 38.2% at 6 weeks in women with epilepsy, compared to 76% in controls. The rate of adherence at 3 months was 36.2% in women with epilepsy, and adherence at 6 months was 18.6%.

The reasons for not breastfeeding were known for 17.6% of women with epilepsy. These reasons included fear of AED exposure through breast milk, recommendations by providers (e.g., pediatricians and obstetricians) not to breastfeed, failed breastfeeding attempts because of technical difficulties (e.g., the baby’s inability to latch), and lack of milk supply. Treating neurologists discussed breastfeeding with 52.9% of women with epilepsy, and epilepsy nurses discussed it with 91% of women with epilepsy. Among the 66% of patients who received obstetrical care at BIDMC, 13% of women with epilepsy had lactation consultation post partum, compared with 58% of controls. Breastfeeding education by the treating neurologist was significantly and positively correlated with decision to breastfeed and initiation of breastfeeding. Postpartum lactation consult support was also associated with a significantly higher rate of breastfeeding initiation, adherence at 6 weeks, adherence at 3 months, and adherence at 6 months. Women with well-controlled seizures were more likely to continue breastfeeding at 6 weeks, compared with women with uncontrolled seizures. The researchers found no statistically significant difference in the breastfeeding initiation rate, however, between women with controlled seizures and those with uncontrolled seizures.

“Women with poor seizure control are a particularly vulnerable group and have the greatest need for intervention to improve breastfeeding rates,” said Dr. Al-Faraj and colleagues. Focused physician education and support measures such as lactation consultation may be potential interventions to improve the treatment of women with epilepsy, they added. “Further prospective investigations are needed to identify other factors that prevent the decision to initiate or adhere to breastfeeding in women with epilepsy and evaluate interventions that may be implemented as a public health measure to support this vulnerable population.”

The study did not have external funding, and the investigators reported no disclosures.

SOURCE: Al-Faraj AO et al. AES 2019, Abstract 1.246.

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