Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Saving lives


The lives of nearly 900 babies would be saved each year, along with billions of dollars, if 90 percent of U.S. women fed their babies breast milk only for the first six months of life, a cost analysis says.The health care system has got to be aware that breast-feeding makes a profound difference," said Dr. Ruth Lawrence, who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics' breast-feeding section.

The findings suggest that there are hundreds of deaths and many more costly illnesses each year from health problems that breast-feeding may help prevent. These include stomach viruses, ear infections, asthma, juvenile diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and even childhood leukemia.

The magnitude of health benefits linked to breast-feeding is vastly underappreciated, said lead author Dr. Melissa Bartick, an internist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. Breast-feeding is sometimes considered a lifestyle choice, but Bartick calls it a public health issue.

Among the benefits: Breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight infections; it also can affect insulin levels in the blood, which may make breast-fed babies less likely to develop diabetes and obesity.

About 43 percent of U.S. mothers do at least some breast-feeding for six months, but only 12 percent follow government guidelines recommending that babies receive only breast milk for six months.

But he also said mothers who don't breast-feed for six months shouldn't be blamed or made to feel guilty, because their jobs and other demands often make it impossible to do so.

"We'd all love as pediatricians to be able to carry this information into the boardrooms by saying we all gain by small changes at the workplace" that encourage breast-feeding, Gray said.

Bartick said there are some encouraging signs. The government's new health care overhaul requires large employers to provide private places for working mothers to pump breast milk. And under a provision enacted April 1 by the Joint Commission, a hospital accrediting agency, hospitals may be evaluated on their efforts to ensure that newborns are fed only breast milk before they're sent home.

The pediatrics academy says babies should be given a chance to start breast-feeding immediately after birth. Bartick said that often doesn't happen, and at many hospitals newborns are offered formula even when their mothers intend to breast-feed.

"Hospital practices need to change to be more in line with evidence-based care," Bartick said. "We really shouldn't be blaming mothers for this."

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