ATLANTA U.S. hospitals are not doing enough to encourage mothers to breast-feed their newborns, raising the risk of childhood obesity, diabetes and other conditions, according to a federal study released on Tuesday.
Less than 4 percent of the country's hospitals fully support breast-feeding, said a report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In nearly 80 percent of hospitals, healthy babies who are being breast-fed are given formula even when there is no medical need for it, making it more difficult to continue breast-feeding at home, the report says.
Only a third of hospitals have "rooming in" policies that allow babies to stay in the hospital room with their mothers 24 hours a day, which can increase breast-feeding opportunities.
Nearly 75 percent of hospitals do not provide adequate support for mothers once they leave, including follow-up visits and phone calls, the report said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends feeding babies only breast milk until they are six months old and continuing breast-feeding for at least a year. Only 15 percent of mothers currently breast-feed exclusively for six months, CDC Director Thomas Frieden told reporters on Tuesday.
"We're a very long way from where we need to be," he said.
Failure to promote breast-feeding costs the U.S. healthcare system $2.2 billion annually, Frieden said.
If breast-feeding is halted too early, babies have a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, respiratory and ear infections, and sudden infant death syndrome, the CDC said.
"Breast milk does many things," Frieden said. "It is the perfect nutrition for an infant. The initial breast milk has very important antibodies that are passed to the child. The child cannot make their own antibodies until they are about six months old."
Studies have shown that children who are breast-fed for at least nine months have a 30 percent lower chance of becoming overweight compared to children who were never breast-fed, said Frieden.
It is not entirely clear why breast-feeding lowers obesity, he added, describing the relationship between the two as "complex."
One hypothesis is that when infants are breast-fed, they have more control over the amount they are consuming, said Cria Perrine, a CDC epidemiologist.
Breast-feeding also helps the health of the mother, lowering the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, Frieden said.
The release of the report coincides with World Breast-feeding Week, which the CDC said is being celebrated in more than 170 countries.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)