Aug. 1, 2012 -- The health benefits of breastfeeding are widely publicized, and it seems that this message is gaining traction. A new breastfeeding report card from the CDC shows that more new moms in the U.S. are choosing to breastfeed their babies.
Just shy of 77% of moms started breastfeeding in 2009, up from 74.6% in 2008. This is the largest one-year increase in breastfeeding rates in 10 years. The number of women who were still breastfeeding at six months increased from 44.3% in 2008 to 47.2% in 2009. And the number of mothers breastfeeding at 12 months out was also on the rise.
The new study provides the most recent data available, but preliminary reports suggest that the breastfeeding rate continues to rise.
Researcher Captain Laurence Grummer-Strawn, PhD, says that things do seem to be moving in the right direction. He is the chief of the nutrition branch in the division of nutrition, physical activity, and obesity at the CDC in Atlanta. But "we are not at all where we need to be," he says. "We don't expect to reach 100%, but certainly we want to be a lot higher than where we are now."
Part of the reason for the increase may be improved support for breastfeeding moms at hospitals. More babies are also being born at "baby-friendly hospitals" that help moms meet their breastfeeding goals.
Breastfeeding can help reduce an infant's risk of ear infections, diarrhea, allergies, obesity, and diabetes. For the mother, breastfeeding helps shed pregnancy weight and may lower her risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. These are some of the reasons why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for about the first six months of life.
Report Card: Breastfeeding Rates Vary Widely by State
Breastfeeding rates vary by state, the report card shows.
For example, less than half of moms start breastfeeding in Mississippi. By contrast, more than 90% of moms start breastfeeding in Idaho. Moms are more likely to breastfeed for at least six months in New Hampshire, Utah, Oregon, and Vermont.
"Some states offer less support for breastfeeding mothers and have fewer baby-friendly hospitals," Grummer-Strawn says. "There are also differences in terms of access to lactation and legislation to support breastfeeding."
Breastfeeding has been in the news lately in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "Latch on NYC" initiative encourages participating hospitals to discuss the benefits of breastfeeding with new moms who request formula. "We are concerned about excessive supplementation in the hospital and this is one way to control it," Grummer-Strawn says.
Room for Improvement
"This is very exciting," Ashley S. Roman, MD, says about the new report card. She is a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, which is a designated baby-friendly hospital. "More hospitals are devoting resources to support women who choose to breastfeed."
Still, new mothers should not feel guilty if they can't breastfeed. The use of certain medications and health conditions can interfere with a mom's ability to breastfeed. "These initiatives are not intended to make women feel guilty if breastfeeding is not the right choice for them."
Katie Krull is a registered nurse and lactation consultant at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. "It's wonderful that numbers have increased, but there is still a lot of room for improvement."
To build on these gains, women need to learn about the benefits of breastfeeding early on in their pregnancy, if not before. This advice needs to be individualized. "We need to hit them multiple times throughout their pregnancy," adds Megan Harrison. She is also a registered nurse and lactation consultant at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. For example, "if the baby is born preterm, we can talk to her about how breastfeeding may help the newborn get out of the neonatal intensive care unit faster."
Sahira Long, MD, says that women also need support when they leave the hospital. Resources may include local lactation support centers, family members, friends, and pediatricians. Long is a pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and runs the Children's National East of the River Lactation Support Center.
Sometimes the problems are easy to remedy. "If the mom is crying every time she nurses, there is usually a problem with the latch or positioning and that can usually be fixed," she says. "If moms are committed and can make it through the first couple of weeks, they can stay their course. It's about baby steps."