Although women generally recognize the many benefits of breast-feeding and most 77 percent willingly try it, only a third of 6-month-old babies are breast-fed. And at the one-year point recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, only 16 percent are breast-feeding, according to BYU researchers.
The numbers fall far short of the federal government's Healthy People 2010 breast-feeding targets, said Renata Forste, professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. The study, which was co-authored with BYU sociology professor John Hoffmann, will be published in the Journal of Human Lactation in August.
Better-educated women are more likely to stick with breast-feeding, despite obstacles, Forste said. Being married and being foreign-born also positively impact breast-feeding likelihood, they found. But only college-graduate moms met the federal goals for initiating and then continuing breast-feeding at six months and a year. The 2010 goals were for 75 percent to initiate breast-feeding, with half still doing it at six months and one-fourth at a year.
Women with college education, Forste said, "recognize the benefit and are willing to put the effort in." She said that's another reason to focus on education for females, encouraging them to stay in school.
Breast milk is considered the best feeding choice for babies because it's sterile, easy to digest and provides antibodies from mom that protect the baby from ills such as ear infections. Previous research has shown a link between breast-feeding and infant survival. It's also an important bonding tool, Forste said. The other advantage is the cost.
But it's not always easy. And "as a society, we don't support it at all." She cites as evidence the fact that it's hard to find a place to breast-feed if you're out in public. Work environments don't all accommodate a breast-feeding employee. And, in fact, women leave the hospital after giving birth with a grundle of free formula. "A lot of things fight against it."
The research shows that the people most at risk of problems that breast-feeding helps are the ones who are not breast-feeding because of a lack of support.
Women are more likely to continue breast-feeding until their baby has received maximum benefit if they have someone they can talk to about breast-feeding, whether it's a pediatrician or a mom who has been there. But it's not something that gets discussed much.
For the study, the researchers considered child-trends data linked to location. They found the areas where children were at high risk because of low-educated moms, poor prenatal care and other challenges were also neighborhoods where babies were not being breast-fed."We need to target policies and procedures in those particular areas," Forste said.