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Public health officials say breastfeeding is the best way to nourish infants.

Women should be actively encouraged to nurse their babies to help reverse low rates of breastfeeding in Newfoundland and Labrador, health professionals say.

Doctors agree that breastfeeding is the best way to protect newborns from early childhood disease, because mother's milk contains antibodies that help babies fight infections.

The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends feeding newborns only breast milk for the first six months, but new mothers in Newfoundland and Labrador are less likely to breastfeed their babies than in other provinces.

About 63 per cent of women in the province begin breastfeeding, compared with 85 per cent nationally, according to a position paper released Tuesday by a coalition of nine professional and consumer groups.

Newfoundland is failing to overcome old hang-ups about breastfeeding, said Janet Murphy Goodridge, one of a handful of lactation consultants in the province.

"I always say to moms, 'Would you frown on a mother sitting in the front pew of the basilica bottle-feeding her baby?' said Murphy Goodridge. "Then why would we feel uncomfortable with a baby breastfeeding? Because that's what breasts are for."

Decades ago, most doctors recommended that mothers use formula to prevent scurvy and rickets. As a result, new mothers who run into problems breastfeeding now may not have an experienced woman to turn to for assistance and as a result switch to formula, said pediatrician Dr. Leanne Newhook.

"We don't have that support in the community, and we don't have a generation behind us of experts, mothers who've breastfed, because it was a bottle-feeding culture," said Newhook, who is her nursing her month-old son, Henry.

In recent years, Nova Scotia and Quebec have both reversed their low rates of breastfeeding. Newhook credits the change to provincial governments promoting the healthy practice and supporting mothers who have a hard time.