How the U.S. Stalled in its Breastfeeding Progress

Baby formula and breast feeding

The breastfeeding drop-off

Recently, The Journal of Pediatrics published a new study about newborn feeding practices in the U.S. that doesn’t paint the most breastfeeding-friendly picture.

Some of the data piqued my interest — for example, researchers used data from 6788 children in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found that only 55 percent were exclusively breastfed in the first week of life. I know from covering the CDC’s breastfeeding report card last year that three out of four moms in the U.S. start to breastfeed (whether exclusively or with supplementing) and by six months, only 13 percent are exclusively breastfeeding.

The study also found, not surprisingly, that supplementing with formula shortened the duration of breastfeeding on average, and also affected a baby’s BMI later in life:

At two years old, the babies who were fed only formula or supplemented with formula had an increased risk of being overweight/obese at age two, compared to those who were exclusively breastfed for at least four months.

Most hospitals reported that they routinely supplement newborns with formula (the researchers noted that, particularly in the Latino community, this is thought to be the healthiest best-of-both-worlds approach) and that most hospitals gave formula and bottles as take-homes from the hospital. I thought that practice was going out of style?

If I can, I’d like to sidestep the argument about whether breastfeeding is important, because as I said last year in my analysis of the Breastfeeding report card, the answer is different depending on how you ask the question. For an individual baby, is formula just as likely to produce a happy, healthy, Harvard-bound baby? Yes. But across the population, does breastfeeding lower rates of obesity, boost immune systems and more? Yes. Supporting breastfeeding is a public health issue, not something to make individual moms feel anxious or guilty about.

Nursing a baby is hard enough as it is — 75 percent of moms start out but only 13 percent are still going at six months. Moms need more support and fewer roadblocks like default formula hospital practices and unfriendly work policies to help close that gap.

Image:  flickr

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