WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Many U.S. hospitals, particularly in the South, have maternity practices that are detrimental to breast-feeding, such as giving free baby formula samples to new mothers, health officials said on Thursday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted its first-ever review of practices by hospitals and specialty birth centers in terms of promoting breast-feeding.
Health experts strongly encourage women to breast-feed their babies rather than give them bottles of formula, saying breast milk provides a range of health benefits to the infant.
CDC epidemiologist Dr. Deborah Dee, who led the study, said she was surprised so many facilities do things that may undermine breast-feeding.
For example, 70 percent of the 2,546 hospitals and 121 birth centers that provided data to the CDC included free infant formula samples in gift packages given to women when they are discharged from the facility after giving birth.
"By providing formula, it's almost an implicit endorsement of that product," Dee said.
In addition, 24 percent of the facilities said they give more than half of their healthy, full-term newborns who are being breast-fed by their mothers supplemental feedings of formula or something else other than breast milk. The CDC said this is detrimental to breast-feeding.
The facilities also were faulted for policies that separate newborns from their mothers during the hospital stay.
"The main thing that we'd want to emphasize is that there really is a need for improvement in maternity practices to better support breast-feeding," Dee said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women who do not have health problems exclusively breast-feed their infants for the first six months, continuing at least through the first year and longer if possible as other foods are introduced.
The CDC sent the facilities, located in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, a series of questions about maternity practices relating to breast-feeding, then assigned them a score based on a scale of zero to 100.
Birth centers, generally smaller, specialized facilities, got an average nationwide score of 86, higher than the average of 62 for hospitals, which handle the vast majority of births.
Average scores among facilities in various U.S. states ranged from a low of 48 in Arkansas to a high of 81 in both New Hampshire and Vermont. The South lagged the rest of the country, while northeastern and western states did the best.
"Those of us who work in hospitals are aware that the 'baby friendly' practices aren't as prevalent as they should be," said Dr. Caroline Chantry, a University of California Davis pediatrician who heads the Academy of Breast-feeding Medicine.
But hospitals by and large have made progress in recent decades in promoting breast-feeding as evidence of its health benefits mounted, Chantry said in a telephone interview.
The CDC previously said the percentage of U.S. infants who were breast-fed rose to a high of 77 percent among those born in 2005 and 2006 from 60 percent in babies born in 1993-1994.
Research has shown that breast-fed babies enjoy health advantages such as fewer ear, stomach or intestinal infections, digestive problems, skin diseases and allergies, and less risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. A study suggested they are smarter than formula-fed babies, too.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Beech