A new survey finds that three-quarters of U.S. newborns are breastfed beginning at birth. But the number of breastfeeding infants rapidly falls off during the first year of life.
Seventy-five percent of babies started life breastfeeding, according to this latest Breastfeeding Report Card. That represents a slow but steady increase in recent years in the percentage of American infants who are breastfed.
The new survey is for babies born in 2007, the most recent year available.
The breastfeeding study comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A public health adviser at the agency, Carol MacGowan, says it's not enough for a new mom to want to breastfeed her baby.
"There's still a lot of practices that need to take place in the hospital to support the mother's decision to breastfeed," she explained. "So she may have decided to breastfeed, but if there's no support in place that helps her to continue that, then she may not even start."
Hospital practices that encourage breastfeeding include putting the newborn skin-to-skin with the mother right after birth, and not offering infant formula or pacifiers.
Although three out of four babies started life on their mother's milk, by the time they're six months old, just 43 percent were still breastfeeding. And by 12 months, only one baby in five was getting any breast milk.
U.S. officials recommend babies be breastfed for the first year of life. The World Health Organization says breastfeeding should last two years.
MacGowan says there are a number of reasons why American women don't continue breastfeeding.
"Some of it is the community support; thus, we address the number of lactation professionals out there to help the women. A big barrier to women is working and breastfeeding. It's a perceived barrier in some cases. It's a real barrier in others."
But despite the barriers, the underlying message is that breast milk is the right food for babies. Many studies have shown that infants who are fed breast milk are healthier.
MacGowan says the benefits are multiple. "Everything from prevention of certain infectious and chronic diseases - respiratory, for example, being one, decreasing the severity of asthma, if they're prone to asthma - and chronic disease such as diabetes and obesity."
Mothers benefit, as well. Breastfeeding lowers the risk of some cancers, naturally promotes spacing between pregnancies, and it costs less, too.