May 19, 2003 -- More new mothers are breastfeeding, but they're stopping earlier than most doctors feel is optimal for the baby's health. The longer a baby nurses, the greater the benefits of breastfeeding, experts say.
That's the finding from a new CDC study, appearing in the May issue of Pediatrics.
The study shows that during the past decade, the number of mothers that start breastfeeding has indeed risen -- from 54% in 1994 to 65% in 2001.
However, a random survey conducted in 2001 shows that breastfeeding is largely short term. The survey focused on U.S. households with children between 19 and 35 months old -- a total of 727 babies -- finding that only 27% (up from 22%) were still breastfed at 6 months old and 12% (up from 9%) were still breastfed at 12 months old.
At one week, almost 60% of infants were exclusively breastfed, but only 8% were still breastfed exclusively at 6 months old.
Though the great majority of infants get some breast milk in their early months, when it's time for mom to go back to work -- when baby is 2 or 3 months old -- she quits breastfeeding, reports lead researcher Ruowei Li, MD, PhD, an epidemiologist with the CDC.
"We really encourage mothers to breastfeed for at least one year," she tells WebMD. "The longer the baby is breastfed, the greater the benefit."
Society still frowns on breastfeeding, she says. "Breastfeeding is influenced by lifestyle factors. Women think they can't do it in public; they feel embarrassed. In other countries, it's acceptable and natural for a woman to breastfeed in public."
She recites the benefits of breastfeeding: "Cow's milk is for cows. Breast milk is the most nutritious food for babies. Breast milk is a living thing, with enzymes and antibodies, specifically made for humans."
Scientists have tried to reproduce breast milk, but have been unable to copy all the nutrients it contains, she says.
Among the benefits of breastfeeding: Mother's milk protects against diarrhea and infectious diseases such as ear and respiratory infections, says Li. Also, new studies indicate that breastfed babies are much less likely to be obese in later life and less likely to develop diabetes.
The special bond that develops between mother and baby is important for the baby's emotional and intellectual development, she says. Breastfeeding is associated with a decreased risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer in the mother. Also, women who breastfeed return to their prepregnancy weight more quickly, says Li.
"There are very few medical reasons why women can't breastfeed," says Debra Bogen, MD, a pediatrician Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. She agreed to talk to WebMD about Li's study.
Bogen suggests that women interview pediatricians about the breastfeeding support they provide. "Breastfeeding is not always intuitive," Bogen tells WebMD. "I help anticipate problems, so the mother knows what to expect. Unless we provide good supportive care, we see what this article shows -- that women will quit."
More employers would support breastfeeding mothers if they understood the benefits of breastfeeding, she says. "When women breastfeed, it's cost-effective for employers. Children are less likely to get ill, so mothers don't have to take as much time off work."