September 16, 2005

Peers boost breastfeeding among low-income women

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Low-income women may be more
likely to breastfeed their infants if they get a little
encouragement from their peers, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that a peer-counseling program boosted
rates of exclusive breastfeeding among low-income,
predominantly Hispanic women who gave birth at one urban
hospital. Compared with new mothers not involved in the
program, these women were 15 times more likely to give their
infants only breast milk for the first 3 months of life.

About 20 percent of women who received peer counseling
exclusively breastfed for 3 months, versus just over 1 percent
of other mothers, according to findings published in the
September issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent

Breast milk is considered the best nutrition for infants,
with studies documenting numerous benefits, including lower
risks of diarrhea, ear and respiratory infections, and
allergies. Experts generally recommend that babies receive only
breast milk for the first 6 months of life.

Even though breastfeeding is on the rise in the U.S., rates
remain especially low among low-income families.

And although the majority of women in this study were not
exclusively breastfeeding after 3 months, the 20-percent rate
is still encouraging, lead study author Dr. Alex K. Anderson
told Reuters Health.

Anderson, who is now at the University of Georgia, Athens,
was with the University of Connecticut at the time of the

The researchers followed 162 expectant mothers who were
giving birth at Hartford Hospital, about half of whom they
randomly assigned to receive peer counseling.

Two women recruited from the community, who themselves had
exclusively breastfed their babies, served as the peer
counselors. They were trained by a certified lactation
consultant to teach other women about the benefits of
breastfeeding and how to successfully do it.

Women in the peer-counseling group were offered home visits
from their counselor, starting before delivery. Those in the
comparison group received the standard breastfeeding
encouragement given at the hospital, which is designated as a
"Baby-Friendly" center. This means the hospital has particular
policies that actively encourage breastfeeding -- such as
rooming mothers and infants together 24 hours a day and not
giving parents free formula and bottles.

Because of this, the number of women who began
breastfeeding in the hospital -- even in the control group --
was higher than the norm for the U.S., according to Anderson.
Ninety-one percent of women in the peer-counseling group
started breastfeeding during their hospital stay, as did 76
percent of those in the comparison group.

It will be important, Anderson noted, to see whether peer
counseling works at hospitals that are not designated as
Baby-Friendly, which describes the vast majority of U.S.

There are, however, many other factors that affect a
mother's ability to exclusively breastfeed, Anderson said.
These include the length of maternity leave and whether the job
environment allows a mother to pump her breast milk. He also
pointed to a need for public policies that encourage exclusive
breastfeeding, and not just any breastfeeding, as well as
broader acceptance of breastfeeding in public areas.

SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine,
September 2005.