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More Women Breast-Feeding Than Ever Before

Study finds more new moms are nursing their infants to six months of age

MONDAY, Dec. 2, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Breast-feeding in the United States is at a record high.

Not only are more women starting to breast-feed soon after giving birth, but more are continuing to nurse their infants to six months of age.

The results of a recent survey by the Ross Products division of Abbott Laboratories (a maker of infant formula) shows that 69.5 percent of new mothers started breast-feeding last year, and 32.5 percent continued to nurse at six months. These are the highest percentages documented by the company since they started surveying breast-feeding practices in 1954.

Furthermore, the greatest increase was found among groups of women historically less likely to nurse their infants: women who are black; those younger than 20; those with little education; those working; and women who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

WIC is a state-administered nutrition program funded by the U.S. government that provides pregnant women and children with education, health referrals and supplemental nutritious food if they are at 185 percent of the poverty level or below.

"As a nation, we see an increase in breast-feeding in all groups," says Alan Ryan, a senior clinical scientist with Abbott. While this is great news, he cautions that the push to educate women about the benefits of breast-feeding must continue. Affluent, better-educated women are still those most likely to start and continue breast-feeding, he says: "More emphasis must be placed on babies in certain populations."

The company conducts the surveys annually. The researchers, whose findings appear in the December issue of Pediatrics, compared the rates over the years, but particularly from 1996 to 2001. Ryan says that if the 2 percent annual increase in mothers who initiate breast-feeding continues, the federal government's Healthy People 2010 goal of 75 percent of women initiating breast-feeding will be met.

Questionnaires are mailed monthly to a representative sample of women. In 2001, 1.4 million questionnaires were sent and 500,000 came back, Ryan says. "That's very good for a mail-back survey," and the sample is representative of about 25 percent of all babies born each year in the United States, he notes.

Not all women breast-feed exclusively. The questionnaire asks about any breast-feeding, and includes mothers who supplement nursing with cow's milk or formula, Ryan says. For example, while in 2001 32.5 percent of women reported still breast-feeding six months after delivery, only 17.2 percent were breast-feeding exclusively.

Solely breast-feeding is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, says Mary Hurt, a public relations spokeswoman for La Leche League International. She would like to see more women breast-feeding at six months and doing so exclusively, but she was pleased to hear the overall incidence of breast-feeding is rising. "I think it's very encouraging news. In many under-serviced areas, it's becoming more of a reality," she says.

She acknowledges, as does Ryan, that certain groups of women continue to breast-feed more than others. These are women who are white, older, college-educated, mothers of more than one child, those who are not part of WIC, and females living in the Mountain and Pacific areas of the United States.

Ryan says the geographic differences are a "cultural phenomenon" and that women in these areas probably receive more peer support for their desire to nurse.

As to the rise in breast-feeding across all sectors, Ryan says that more women are getting the message that mother's milk is best: "I think there are a lot of [educational] programs in place now."

Hurt thinks certain barriers to breast-feeding may be falling by the wayside. Unaccommodating work environments have typically held women back, she says, and that may be changing.

Women may also be recognizing the health benefits of nursing, for mother as well as infant. "In some of the newer research, health benefits for mothers are becoming more highlighted," such as the news that breast-feeding lowers a woman's risk for ovarian and breast cancer, she says.

Whatever the reasons, breast-feeding may finally be getting the recognition it deserves, she says. Like many other good things in life, "it's free, so we have a hard time seeing its value."

What To Do

To find out more about the benefits of breast-feeding, visit the University of Michigan and La Leche League.

SOURCES: Alan Ryan, Ph.D., senior clinical scientist, Ross Products division, Abbott Laboratories, Columbus, Ohio; Mary Hurt, spokeswoman, La Leche League International, Schaumberg, Ill.; December 2002 Pediatrics
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