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Published: Thursday, 8/11/2011

Mother's milk

New parents face a daunting array of contradictory advice about child-rearing -- disposable vs. cloth diapers, whether the baby should sleep alone or share the parents' bed, if and when it's best to entrust the child to a sitter or day care.

But in this sea of confusion, one message is unequivocal: Breast-feeding is best for babies.

Breast-feeding fell out of favor before the 1960s and still faces resistance in some quarters. The medical community is virtually unanimous in its support of breast-feeding, which makes the findings of a new report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surprising and disappointing.

Fewer than 5 percent of U.S. hospitals give mothers the support they need to breast-feed for at least the first six months of the baby's life. The CDC says just 114 hospitals and birth centers meet guidelines from the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Health Organization's Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative.

The WHO initiative gives hospitals 10 steps to follow. Those steps include: having written policy and providing staff training on breast-feeding; telling pregnant women of the benefits and management of breast-feeding; helping mothers start within an hour of birth; allowing babies to stay in hospital rooms with their mothers; avoiding pacifiers and other nourishment unless medically necessary; and making mothers aware of support groups.

There are rare instances when breast-feeding is not appropriate. But it should be the norm except in those unusual circumstances.

Breast-feeding is the best source of nutrition for babies. It protects against diarrhea, flu, and other infections and illnesses. It reduces allergies and childhood obesity. It enhances social development and builds strong bonds between baby and mother.

Breast-feeding also reduces the mother's risk of breast and other cancers. And it saves families money.

The latest guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say health insurers must provide, free of charge, pumps that nursing mothers need to support breast-feeding. Hospitals, too, must do all they can to help and encourage mothers to breast-feed their babies for at least six months.

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