Breastfeeding (search) infants well into their first few months of life is too rare in the U.S., particularly among blacks and socially disadvantaged groups. The news comes from a CDC report that shows breastfeeding rates fall short of national goals.

It’s not that breastfeeding is uncommon. More than 70 percent of American babies have been breastfed at some point. That’s close to the target set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (search). The department’s goal is to have at least 75 percent of mothers breastfeed their babies in the early postpartum (search) period. The HHS also wants to have at least 50 percent of mothers continue breastfeeding until their babies are 5 to 6 months old.

The American Pediatric Association (search) suggests that exclusive breastfeeding is the ideal nutrition and is sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first six months after birth.

But the study shows that many infants are weaned too early or aren’t exclusively breastfed during their first year, says the CDC. The data comes from a 2002 national survey of about 3,500 families, which was analyzed by CDC researchers including Ruowei Li, MD, PhD.

Only 35 percent of 6-month-old babies receive breast milk to some extent, while only about 13 percent were being breastfed exclusively. The numbers are even lower for 1-year-olds, with 16 percent being fed some breast milk.

That falls short of national breastfeeding goals. By the year 2010, half of all 6-month-olds and a quarter of 1-year-olds should be breastfed, says the HHS.

The findings are reported in the Jan. 1 edition of the journal Pediatrics.

Breastfeeding should especially be promoted among blacks and disadvantaged groups, say the researchers. Mothers of non-Hispanic black children were less likely to initiate and continue breastfeeding than mothers of non-Hispanic white children. Only about 5 percent of black infants are exclusively breastfed at 6 months, the lowest breastfeeding rates shown in the study. In contrast, more than 14 percent of 6-month-old white babies were exclusively fed breast milk.

In addition, breastfeeding rates varied according to participation in day care or Women, Infants and Children (search) (WIC) programs. WIC is a government program that provides nutritious food and health information to low-income mothers and children.

Breastfeeding rates also varied according to socioeconomic status and geographic region. The researchers say that interventions should focus on improving rates in the sectors that have the lowest breastfeeding rates.

“Worldwide, breastfeeding is recognized as beneficial for both infants and mothers,” say Li and colleagues. “The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that human milk is the preferred feeding for all infants, including premature and sick newborns, with rare exceptions.”

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Li, R. Pediatrics, Jan. 1, 2005; vol 115: pp e31-e37. News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.