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Breastfeeding rates improve, but still fall short of public health goals

More U.S. women are breastfeeding their newborns, and in Minnesota, we seem to be doing better than the national numbers.

The CDC’s 2012 Breastfeeding Report Card found that 53.8 percent of Minnesota women were breastfeeding their babies at six months.
REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez

More U.S. women are breastfeeding their newborns, according to a study released last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From 2000 to 2008, the percentage of new mothers who breastfed their infants, at least initially, rose from 70.3 percent to 74.6 percent.

Although that’s only a 4.2 increase, it’s still good news. Also encouraging is the 9.9 percent rise in the number of U.S. women who were breastfeeding at six months (up from 34.5 percent in 2000 to 44.4 percent in 2008) and the 7.4 percent rise in the number of who were breastfeeding at 12 months (up from 16 percent in 2000 to 23.4 percent in 2008).

It wasn’t clear, however, how many of those women were breastfeeding exclusively (no formula or solid foods) at six months. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be fed only breast milk for six months and that they be breastfed for at least another six months once other foods have been introduced.

Minnesota’s numbers

Here in Minnesota, we seem to be doing somewhat better than those national numbers, at least more recently. The CDC’s 2012 Breastfeeding Report Card found that 53.8 percent of Minnesota women were breastfeeding their babies at six months and 29.2 percent were doing so at 12 months, although only 16.1 percent were breastfeeding exclusively during the first six months.

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Both the U.S. and Minnesota breastfeeding rates still trail those of many other Western countries. In Norway and Sweden, for example, at least 97 percent of women are breastfeeding their babies when they take their babies home from the hospital.

Also disappointing are the ethnic and racial disparities in the CDC report. Between 2000 and 2008, the percentage of new mothers who initiated breastfeeding increased the most among black women (up from 47.4 percent to 58.9 percent). But their numbers still trailed those of white women (up from 71.8 percent to 75.2 percent) and Hispanic women (up from 77.5 percent to 80.0 percent). (The rise in the rate of breastfeeding among Hispanic women was considered statistically insignificant.)

“The consistently lower prevalence of breastfeeding among black infants warrants increased attention and action,” the CDC researchers note.

Benefits and barriers

Breastfeeding confers many health benefits on both mother and child. As I’ve noted here before, mothers who breastfeed tend to experience less bleeding after delivery and their uterus returns more quickly to its normal size. They’re also at less risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers and, possibly, osteoporosis later in life.

For babies, breastfeeding offers protection from respiratory, gastrointestinal, ear and other infections. Breastfed babies also tend to be leaner and perhaps less prone to obesity later in life.

Research has shown that many factors contribute to the relatively low rate of breastfeeding in the United States. These include a lack of informed support for breastfeeding on maternity wards in hospitals, aggressive marketing by infant formula companies, short maternity leaves, employers who do not make accommodations to enable nursing mothers to pump and store breast milk during working hours, and negative social attitudes about breastfeeding (as demonstrated last summer when a security guard at the Minneapolis Central Library asked a breastfeeding mother to leave the building).

New coverage for breast pumps

The U.S. government’s Healthy People 2020 goal is to have 81.9 percent of mothers breastfeeding their newborns and 25.5 percent doing so exclusively at six months.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) may go a long way in helping the country reach those goals. Since Jan. 1, breast pump sales have boomed — thanks to an ACA provision that went into effect that day. It requires insurance companies to cover the costs of breast pumps and visits to lactation experts for new mothers.  

The CDC report was published Feb. 8 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.