More women are breastfeeding, but the percentage of mothers choosing to breastfeed exclusively is still far short of national objectives, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday in its weekly Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Almost 75 percent of new mothers are now choosing to breast-feed, but far fewer are choosing to nourish their babies exclusively with breast milk. The CDC defines exclusive breastfeeding as an infant receiving only breast milk and no other liquids or solids except for drops or syrups consisting of vitamins, minerals, or medicines.

"The increase in mothers choosing to initiate breastfeeding is good news because it provides health benefits for women and decreases the risk of some early childhood diseases among infants," said Dr. William H. Dietz, director of CDC′s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, in a news release. "But it is still quite alarming that mothers and infants are not receiving the full health benefits most associated with exclusive breastfeeding."

This type of breastfeeding, officials say, has a stronger protective effect against lower respiratory tract infections, middle ear infection, eczema, and childhood obesity. It also is associated with health benefits for women, including decreased risk for type 2 diabetes, and ovarian and breast cancers, the CDC said in its report.

The findings come from a CDC analysis of data from the National Immunization Survey (NIS) on trends in breastfeeding initiation and duration for infants born from 2000–2004, and from sociodemographic characteristics for infants born during 2004.

About 74 percent (73.8) of women chose to breastfeed — though not exclusively — in 2004, up from 70.9 percent in 2000. That percentage falls just short of the national objective of 75 percent.

But rates of exclusive breastfeeding for infants through age 3 months in 2004 was 30.5 percent, about half the government's target of 60 percent. The rate of breastfeeding through age six months was just 11.3 percent for the same period, far short of the government's target of 25 percent.

By sociodemographic characteristics, rates of exclusive breastfeeding through age 3 months were lowest among black infants (19.8 percent) and for young mothers (16.8 percent), as well as for mothers with a high school education or less (22.9 percent and 23.9 percent, respectively), are unmarried (18.8 percent), reside in rural areas (23.9 percent), and are poor (23.9 percent).