More U.S. mothers are breast-feeding their newborns than were nursing roughly a decade ago. A national survey shows that as of 2008, 75 percent of babies born that year were breast-fed, compared with 70 percent in 2000. And more babies are being breast-fed to a later age.
The benefits of breast-feeding are well documented, and the gradual change suggests the public health message may be getting through. Compared with breast-fed infants, babies who drink formula are more prone to ear infections and diarrhea in the first six months and face a higher lifetime risk of asthma, obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health problems, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office reported in 2011.
The new survey of thousands of people found that 80 percent of Hispanic newborns were breast-fed in 2008, the year for which the most recent data were available, compared with 75 percent of white infants and 59 percent of black infants. While a gap in nursing rates lingers between black mothers and other women, it shrank somewhat between 2000 and 2008, Jessica Allen and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in the Feb.8 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Hispanic moms were the most apt to breast-feed long term, with 26 percent of their babies nursing for a year or more, a percentage that’s slightly higher than that for whites and twice as high as for blacks.
Women who don’t nurse an infant are more likely to be young, single, poor or less educated. But when other researchers accounted for such differences between groups, black women still breast-feed their babies less, Allen says. She thinks that cultural norms in the black community may discourage breast-feeding, or that other factors might interfere with it, such as an unsupportive work environment or lack of partner support.
Working may well be the primary impediment to breast-feeding overall, says Elizabeth Moore, a registered nurse and lactation consultant at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Breast-feeding works by supply and demand,” she says. “The more a baby nurses, the more milk a mother makes.” Being at work away from a baby interferes with a mother’s natural lactation and can compound stress, which is also bad for breast-feeding, she says. Some discrepancy between high- and low-income mothers could come down to the nature of their jobs. Office work might enable a woman to find privacy for pumping breast milk, she says. “But women on a line in a factory or waitressing might find it a lot more challenging.”