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Black Women Less Likely To Breast-feed Babies

May be major factor in higher infant death rate, suggests study

TUESDAY, Aug. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Black mothers are less than half as likely to breast-feed their babies as white mothers, a new study says. And along with low birth weight, that may be why black babies are more likely to die, the researchers suggest.

Study author Renata Forste, associate professor in sociology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says "Because we know that African-Americans have higher infant mortality rates, and generally in the literature it is known that they have lower birth weight babies, we wanted to look at the relationship between breast-feeding and infant mortality. And what we found is that the fact that [African-Americans] don't breast-feed seems to explain [some of] the difference in infant mortality."

Breast milk helps babies build defenses against infections and allergies, and even fend off chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer later in life. Unlike formula, human milk is stocked with antibodies that fight disease, as well as fatty acids, cholesterol and other building blocks of healthy development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be given breast milk exclusively in their first six months and then be weaned gradually over the next six months. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that only 29 percent of all American infants still are breast-fed at 6 months.

Forste, who usually studies children's health issues in Latin America, researched U.S. breast-feeding patterns while mentoring a graduate student's project. Using information developed by the CDC during the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, Forste focused on more than 1,000 women with children aged 18 months or younger. After accounting for factors like income level, education, marital status and age, race continued to predict who would breast-feed and who would not.

The study shows that 65 percent of white women breast-fed their babies while only 30 percent of African-American women did. Understanding why is crucial if public health officials want to narrow the mortality gap between black and white babies, Forste says.

According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the death rate in 1998 for black infants was 13.8 per 1,000 live births; that was more than double that of white infants at 6 per 1,000.

Forste says she does not know why black women are less likely to breast-feed than whites. She says it could be the lack of a support network that encourages breast-feeding or the lack of role models. "I don't think we do much in this country to promote breast-feeding anyway. For instance, when women leave the hospital after having a baby, they're often sent home with a package of baby formula," she says.

Among the study's other findings:

  • Women are less likely to breast-feed their babies if they are not planning any more children.
  • Women in western states are 3.6 times more likely to breast-feed than women in the rest of America.
  • College-educated women are twice as likely to breast-feed their babies as women whose education does not go beyond high school.
  • Foreign-born women are 75 percent more likely to breast-feed their babies than American-born women.

The findings are in the Aug. 6 issue of Pediatrics.

Katharine Barber, the executive director of the newly formed African-American Breast Feeding Alliance in Baltimore, Md., says "I breast-fed two children, and when I looked around for support, what I found was that there was absolutely none out there. So what I did is I began to do some research and, in response, I started this organization. Our goal is to increase breast-feeding rates among African-American women."

Barber says Forste's study is very accurate. "One of the things I found is that there is a major lack of good breast-feeding information available in the African-American community. And I do think that there is a certain stigma against breast-feeding in the African-American community. We don't see African-Americans breast-feeding. We don't see pictures, we don't see advertising, we don't see anything, and it has not been a major push in the African-American medical community," Barber adds.

What To Do

For information about breast-feeding, the La Leche League International has Q&As, articles and other information.

If you're interested in learning more about the African-American Breast Feeding Alliance, contact Katherine Barber at (877) 532-8535. And here's what the American Academy of Pediatrics says about breast-feeding.

SOURCES: Interviews with Renata Forste, Ph.D., associate professor in sociology, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; and Katharine Barber, executive director, African-American Breast Feeding Alliance, Baltimore, Md.; August 6, 2001 Pediatrics
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