U.S. hospitals have made significant improvements to breast-feeding support programs in recent years, providing better help to new mothers, federal health officials reported Tuesday.
Nearly twice as many hospitals have adopted most of the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding initiative, a global standard for hospital support of breast-feeding before, during and after a new mom’s hospital stay, the officials said.
The percentage of U.S. hospitals using a majority of the Ten Steps increased from about 29 percent in 2007 to 54 percent in 2013, according to the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there’s still work to be done, the CDC report added. Nearly 4 million babies are born each year in the United States, but only 14 percent are born in “baby-friendly” hospitals that have successfully implemented the entire Ten Steps program.
“Every one of the Ten Steps is important to use in a hospital to give babies the best start, to help mothers start and continue to breast-feed as recommended,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said during a media briefing. “Ideally, we would like every birth hospital in this country to adopt all of the Ten Steps and become ‘baby-friendly.'”
Breast milk is loaded with antibodies and other germ-fighting factors that pass from mother to baby. Babies who are breast-fed are less likely to develop ear, respiratory, stomach and intestinal infections. They’re also at lower risk of asthma, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome, the CDC says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of life, and that they continue to receive breast-milk as part of their diet for at least 12 months.
However, studies have found that by six months of age, only about half of all infants are receiving any breast-milk. And only 22 percent breast-feed exclusively for the recommended first six months of life, according to background information in the CDC report.
There’s strong evidence that many mothers want to breast-feed longer, but stop due to inconvenience and lack of support. Six out of every 10 mothers who stop breast-feeding during the first year report that they stopped earlier than they would have liked, the CDC report said.
The main complaints that new mothers cite for quitting breast-feeding include pain, problems with the baby latching on appropriately, and concern that the baby isn’t getting enough milk, said report lead author Cria Perrine, an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.
“These are things can be overcome with early professional support and management, which is why that early period in the hospital and immediately after the hospital is so critical,” Perrine said.
To help mothers start and maintain breast-feeding, the World Health Organization and UNICEF started the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative. The Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding stand as the core of that initiative.
The CDC report said the policies from the Ten Steps that had been successfully implemented by a majority of U.S. hospitals in 2013 include:
- Showing new mothers how to breast-feed, including how to position their baby and how to express and store milk for later use (92 percent of hospitals).
- Providing prenatal breast-feeding education to expecting mothers (91 percent).
- Encouraging new mothers to breast-feed when their baby is hungry, instead of feeding on a set schedule (87 percent).
- Helping mothers initiate breast-feeding within one hour of birth (65 percent).
- Giving adequate training to nurses and birth assistants so they can effectively help new mothers (60 percent).
However, U.S. hospitals are falling short in other key areas, the CDC researchers found.
Only 26 percent of hospitals make sure that healthy babies are solely fed breast milk, for example. Newborns should not be fed infant formula unless it’s a medical necessity, according to the Ten Steps guidelines.
And just one-third of hospitals provide ongoing support for breast-feeding mothers after they’ve left the hospital. This support can include a follow-up visit, a phone call, or referrals to breast-feeding support groups.
The CDC researchers also found that only 45 percent of hospitals kept mothers and babies together throughout the entire hospital stay, which provides opportunities to breast-feed and helps mothers learn their baby’s feeding cues.
The CDC report also noted that mothers who breast-feed are less likely to get breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
And breast-feeding can save money. An estimated $2 billion in yearly medical costs for children could be saved if breast-feeding recommendations were met, according to the CDC.
The CDC report urges more American hospitals to get on board with the Ten Steps program, and to work with professionals in their area to create breast-feeding support networks for new mothers.
Perrine noted that a year ago there were no “baby-friendly” hospitals in Georgia, but since then four hospitals have gained that designation by fully implementing the Ten Steps. Those hospitals account for 10 percent of births in Georgia, she said.
“As a mom who gave birth to a baby a year and a half ago in the state of Georgia, this is very exciting to me,” she said.
For more on breast-feeding, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.