Support programs for new mothers help them to breast-feed their babies for longer periods and to keep breast milk as the baby's only source of nutrition, according to a new review of existing evidence.
The researchers concluded that breast-feeding support - whether educational or just encouraging - by trained professionals or lay people generally benefited women and their babies.
"Breast-feeding is really important," said lead author Alison McFadden, who directs the Mother and Infant Research Unit at the University of Dundee in the UK. "Good support will help mothers to breastfeed longer and breastfeed exclusively, which of course is good for mothers and babies."
McFadden and her colleagues are part of the international Cochrane network of researchers who analyze evidence on health topics. Their new review was published in the Cochrane Library.
The World Health Organization recommends that babies be breast-fed exclusively for the first six months of life and then given breast milk along with other food until they're two years old.
Babies who are breast-fed are less likely to develop infections, become overweight and develop diabetes, the researchers write.
"For women, it reduces the incidence of breast and ovarian cancer and diabetes," McFadden told Reuters Health.
For the review, the researchers analyzed 73 studies that compared women who received breast-feeding support to women who received no support or a different kind of intervention. Overall, 75,000 women and their babies were included in the analysis. Most were from high- to middle-income countries.
Support can come in many forms, the authors say - including reassurance, praise, information and the opportunities to discuss problems and ask questions.
Women who received support were about 8 percent less likely to stop breast-feeding before six months, compared to women who didn't get the added help.
For every 1,000 women who received the added help, 304 stopped breast-feeding by four to six weeks and 510 stopped breastfeeding by six months, whereas for every 1,000 women who didn't receive support, 353 stopped within four to six weeks and 573 stopped by six months.
Also, 732 of every 1,000 women who received supported were no longer exclusively breast-feeding at six months, while the same was true for 823 of every 1,000 "unsupported" women.
Certain factors may make the support more valuable for mothers and babies, the researchers found.
For example, it didn't matter whether a health care professional or a trained lay person delivered the support. But, McFadden said, "it needs to be offered, proactive and scheduled so mothers know when to expect support."
Additionally, face-to-face contact and support appeared to be better than help delivered over the phone.
"The people we're hoping will take note of this are those providing the breast-feeding support - the health professional and the people making health policy," said McFadden.
The next step for this type of research would be to make these support services available to a large number of women.
For new parents and parents-to-be, McFadden said, it's important to ask their health care providers about breastfeeding support programs.
"If that support is not available, seek it out," she said.