Family Matters

Why Most Moms Don’t Follow Breast-Feeding Recommendations

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Vladimir Godnik/moodboard/Corbis

When it comes to breast-feeding, there’s good news and bad news. The former is that lots of U.S. mothers – 75% — are initiating breast-feeding. The latter? Less than a quarter are persevering a full year, which is the minimum the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends babies dine on mom’s milk.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that just 43% of U.S. mothers were still nursing at six months, although the AAP advises babies stick exclusively to breast milk during that period. (This, despite supermodel Gisele Bundchen’s much-publicized proposal last month espousing an international law mandating that mothers breastfeed their babies for six months.)

At one year, 22% of women were still breast-feeding.

“We need to direct even more effort toward making sure mothers have the support they need in hospitals, workplaces and communities to continue breast-feeding beyond the first few days of life, so they can make it to those six- and 12-month marks,” says William Dietz, director of CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.

Reams of research have linked breastfeeding to scores of benefits for both mom and baby: breast-fed babies aren’t as likely to fall prey to obesity, ear infections or diabetes; breast-feeding moms benefit from a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Because breast-fed babies are healthier, the AAP projects that a significant increase in the nation’s breast-feeding rate could trim nearly $4 billion a year in health care costs.

The data doesn’t surprise breast-feeding experts, who attribute the low breast-feeding numbers over time to a lack of support. When breast-feeding proves difficult — it’s not as easy as it looks! — “the only option given is formula-feeding rather than breast-feeding support,” says Miriam Labbok, director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Mothers don’t give up. They are undermined or discouraged. They are initiating breast-feeding so they want to breast-feed, but they are not getting the support they need to achieve their intentions.”

Still, the environment is much friendlier toward breast-feeding that it was a few decades ago. Whereas hospitals used to whisk babies away from mothers right after birth, making it difficult to establish a breast-feeding rhythm, many now employ lactation consultants to assist new mothers and encourage rooming-in, where babies sleep in bassinets in the mother’s room.

Yet once mom and baby are discharged from the hospital, the story changes. In Europe, many countries send “health visitors” to check on newborn parents at home. And their paid maternity leaves relieve pressure on mothers to return to work before breast-feeding is well-established.

Reform, anyone?

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