By J. Ron Eaker, M.D.


Most folks acknowledge that breast-feeding babies is a good thing. In fact, the most recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control indicate that almost 80 percent of infants that are discharged from the hospital after birth are breastfed. In Georgia almost 70 percent of babies start out life as breastfed babies. At six months that number drops to 40 percent and at a year only 20 percent are still on the breast. In comparison California has the highest rate in the country at 92 percent and Louisiana has the lowest rate at 57 percent.

The advantages of breastfeeding are legion. The CDC summarizes the major advantages as follows:

•     Breastfed children are more resistant to disease and infection early in life than formula-fed children.

•     Breastfed children are less likely to contract a number of diseases later in life, including juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer before the age of 15.

•     Mothers who breastfeed are less likely to develop osteoporosis later in life, are able to lose weight gained during pregnancy more easily and have a lower risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.

One of the most interesting and recent findings is that children who breastfeed “are significantly less likely to become obese later in childhood. Formula feeding is linked to about a 20 to 30 percent greater likelihood that a child will become obese.” This has fostered a number of studies assessing potential longterm consequences of breastfeeding.

New Research Uncovers More Benefits

Currently there are ongoing studies that are looking at cognitive development of breastfed babies. In other words, some studies indicate that babies who are breastfed have fewer psychological, behavioral and learning problems as they grow older. Needless to say these studies are a bit controversial in their design and conclusions. However, the data is suggestive of at least some positive impact on mental functioning.

For those who cynically break down everything to economics, there is actually information on breastfeeding and the impact on personal and societal economies. Breastfed babies are less likely to need excessive medical attention as they grow. In one study, a group of formula-fed infants had $68,000 in health care costs in a six-month period, while an equal number of nursing babies had only $4,000 of similar expenses.

All this wonderful information is not presented to shame a mother who doesn’t or can’t breastfeed. Believe me, there are plenty of “normal” kids and adults who were formula fed from the get go. If a choice is feasible, the data supports choosing breastfeeding.

More Support and Education Needed in Some Communities

One controversy beginning to boil up in breastfeeding supporters surrounds a discrepancy in breastfeeding rates between African-American and Caucasian mothers. Nationally, breastfeeding rates among black infants are about 16 percent lower than for white infants according to a 2014 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This study presents data that suggests hospitals that serve predominately black populations have fewer resources to promote breastfeeding, especially certified lactation counselors.

Of interest, Georgia and Florida lead the South in the number of lactation consultants per 1000 births. Other factors that influence breastfeeding in certain areas are formal community support groups and hospital and workplace educational programs, both of which tend to occur in lower numbers in predominantly African-American populations.

The study’s authors concluded, “The reasons for this disparity are unclear. However, this observation could provide insight into the reasons for the persistent gap in breastfeeding rates between black and white babies in the United States.”

The solution seems to be encouraging hospitals and birthing centers to employ resources to encourage and support breastfeeding. Administrators should reallocate funds from less successful programs into those, like breastfeeding, that have a proven track record. The dividends would be enormous both medically and economically.

As I alluded to before, there are some women who can’t breastfeed. There are some medications absolutely necessary for mom’s health that preclude breastfeeding.  Some women simply don’t produce enough milk to provide adequate nutrition, and some anatomical changes make breastfeeding impractical.

If breastfeeding creates a significant amount of stress in mom, regardless of the reason, consideration should be given to bottle feeding. Studies do indicate that very stressed moms not only produce less milk, but it may be less nutritious.

While breastfeeding should be the default choice, some women and babies actually are better off with the bottle. Like most health decisions, it is one that should be individualized to fit your and your baby’s needs. Talk with your obstetrician and pediatrician then decide what is best for you and your newborn.

This article appears in the November 2015 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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