More U.S. moms are trying to breastfeed, but most don't continue with for six months as recommended, according to a new study.

Breast milk is considered best for babies, because the fluid meets a baby's nutritional needs, is easily digested, and contains antibodies that prevent infections and other diseases, while also promoting the mother's health. 

'Where the need is greatest, breastfeeding happens the least. It's a sad irony.'—Study author Prof. Renata Forste 

The Canadian Pediatric Society, Health Canada, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization all recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. The U.S. group also recommends continuing breastfeeding through at least the first year.

About 77 per cent of moms in the U.S. start to nurse, but only 36 per cent of babies are breastfed through six months, according to a study appearing in the August issue of the Journal of Human Lactation.

The results of the national study fall well short of the U.S. government's goal of having half of mothers breastfeed for six months by 2010, said study author Renata Forste.

Continuing support needed

"Breastfeeding promotion programs encourage women to start but don't provide the support to continue," said Forste, a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

The researchers found breastfeeding was lowest among children of:

  • Single mothers.
  • Less-educated mothers.
  • Participants in a federal food supplement program.
  • Those living in nonwestern U.S. states.
  • Areas of high newborn risk.

"Where the need is greatest, breastfeeding happens the least," Forste said in a release. "It's a sad irony both in terms of health needs and the expense these families incur buying formula."

The study's authors recommend focusing on supporting breastfeeding among less educated mothers and those living in high-risk areas.

"If mothers who lack resources such as education, marital stability, income, and healthy environments do not receive support to breastfeed, the health and well-being gap between children born to women with resources and those born to disadvantaged mothers will only widen," the study concluded.

The U.S. study was based on national data from 2003 and 2004.

In 2007, Statistics Canada reported that the proportion of eligible mothers who breastfed exclusively for at least six months increased to 28 per cent from 20 per cent after maternity leave was extended to one year.