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Study: Babies off breast too early

Formula use is criticized

ATLANTA -- Nearly three-quarters of new mothers in the United States are breast-feeding their babies, but they are quitting too soon and resorting to infant formula too often, federal health officials said yesterday.

A government survey found that only about 30 percent of new mothers are feeding their babies breast milk alone three months after birth. At six months, only 11 percent are breast-feeding exclusively.

Formula isn't as good at protecting babies against diseases, eczema, and childhood obesity. Ideally, nearly all mothers should breast-feed for six months or more, said Dr. David Paige, a reproductive health specialist at Johns Hopkins University.

But many do not because of their jobs, the inconvenience, and perhaps because of persuasive advertising for baby formula.

What's wrong with giving a baby a bottle every once in a while? Not much, said Paige, except that it can begin a pattern. As a child sucks at the breast less, there is less stimulation needed to produce milk, he said.

"It creates a downward spiral," he said, adding that often a woman abandons it altogether.

The annual random-digit-dial survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the percentage of women who start breast-feeding rose from 71 percent in 2000 to 74 percent in 2004. That's a new high, CDC officials said, and is based on nearly 17,000 responses.

A previous survey suggested a higher percentage breast-fed exclusively -- 39 percent at three months and 14 percent at six months. However, researchers think there may have been confusion in that earlier survey that led to the higher percentage.

The new results are being called the best national data to date on exclusive breast-feeding, in which mothers give their infants nothing but breast milk, except for vitamin drops.

The CDC study found that rates were lowest among black women and among those who are unmarried, poor, rural, younger than 20, and have a high school education or less.