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Study: Hospitals End Up Discouraging Breast Feeding

A new study by the Boston University School of Public Health shows that even when hospitals encourage new mothers to breast feed, those same hospitals sometimes do things that increase the chance the babies will end up drinking formula instead.

The researchers looked at data on about 1,500 women nationwide who had recently given birth. Among the first-time mothers, 70 percent said they wanted to breast feed exclusively. But by the time their babies were a week old, only half the women were actually doing that.

Then the researchers asked how many of the babies had been given pacifiers or infant formula or even water in a bottle while they were in the hospital. It turned out that babies who hadn't had any of those were more likely to be exclusively breast fed.

"In some cases, mothers were reporting that it was more difficult to get their baby nursing," the study's lead author, BU professor Gene Declercq, says. "And these cases were more likely when the babies were supplemented than when they weren't."

Declercq says that could be because when a baby is trying to learn to nurse from both formula supplement in a bottle and from a mother's breast, problems can crop up. That's because the two feeding methods require different tongue motions and swallowing skills.

"The term they would use, I think, is nipple confusion," says Declercq.

Declercq says the hospitals were well-meaning when they gave the babies bottles. They were usually trying to let a tired mother get some rest, or give the babies extra nutrition. But Declercq says the end result was that those good-intentioned efforts contributed to some mothers giving up on breast feeding.

"The message is, I think, pretty clear, says Declercq, "that one shouldn't be supplementing babies who are healthy and whose mothers want to exclusively breast feed."

Of course, some new mothers really are too exhausted to breast feed right away, or they can't produce enough breast milk for their baby's nutritional needs. In those cases, there are alternatives to giving a baby an artificial nipple.

That's according to Stephanie Avelino of the La Leche League, a group that promotes breast feeding.

"If something needs to be given, why does it have to be given in a bottle," asks Avelino. "It could be given on a spoon or with a cup or with a syringe. There's a way of administering it if it's medically necessary without using an artificial teat."

The study, which appears in the American Journal of Public Health, notes that several health organizations nationwide recommend that infants consume only breast milk for at least the first six months of life.

This program aired on March 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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