THURSDAY, March 25, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Messages about the health-boosting powers of breast-feeding aren't reaching black American women as well as their Hispanic or white counterparts, a new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests.
The researchers found that while more than 80 percent of Hispanic mothers attempt to breast-feed, and about 74 percent of white moms do, that number falls to 54 percent for black mothers. And one year after delivery, only about 12 percent of black women are still breast-feeding their child as recommended, compared to 24 percent of Hispanic women and more than 21 percent of white women.
The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that babies be breast-fed exclusively for the first six months of life, and that non-exclusive breast-feeding continue for at least six months thereafter.
"We have seen before that there are racial/ethnic differences in breast-feeding," noted study coauthor Cria Perrine, from the CDC's division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity.
"Hispanics have the highest rates of breast-feeding closely followed by whites and there tends to be a pretty big gap with blacks," she said.
The report is published in the March 26 issue of CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
For the study, Perrine's team analyzed data from the 2004-2008 National Immunization Survey on breast-feeding among different groups and also on state-to-state variations.
Breast-feeding among racial/ethnic groups also varied by state, particularly among black women, with the highest rates of breast-feeding among blacks seen in western states and the lowest in southeastern states, Perrine said.
The reasons for the disparities are not totally clear, Perrine said. "We definitely need more research in that area," she noted.
"There is some suggestion that blacks are more comfortable with formula feeding and prefer to formula feed. There is also some suggestion that blacks return to work earlier than whites after giving birth and maybe the work environment is not supporting them enough to continue to breast-feed," she said.
Among Hispanics, breast-feeding is the cultural norm, Perrine noted. "In their countries of origin, breast-feeding is just the natural way of life."
However, after coming to the United States there is some loss of that tradition, with more Hispanic women favoring formula feeding, she said.
"We probably need more public health messages about the importance of breast-feeding and more support for breast-feeding in general -- in the hospital, in returning to work," she said.
Dr. Lourdes Q. Forster, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that the findings are "encouraging to some degree since we know that national estimates have improved since the 1990s."
Overall, the number of women breast-feeding is approaching the Healthy People 2010 goal of 75 percent of new mothers starting breast-feeding and 50 percent continuing for at least six months, she pointed out.
"But the most striking thing is, unfortunately, the rate in blacks hasn't really changed much," Forster said.
"The reason that's important is that breast-feeding has been shown to improve infant health as well as maternal health. It significantly reduces rates of infection for certain illnesses in infants. It reduces the amount of emergency room visits they may have. Overall, it's the perfect nutrition for the first six months of life," she said.
Efforts to get women to breast-feed should start right at the beginning of a pregnancy, Forster said. Women need to make the decision early and prepare for it and also be taught how to breast-feed, she said.
"If we are targeting babies once they're born, we're targeting too late," she said. "What we need to be doing is approaching moms with good prenatal health care and encouraging women from the get-go and giving them information about how important it is to breast-feed. Also, women just don't want to be told it's important -- they want to be shown how to do it."
There's much more on breast-feeding at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.