Though studies show breast feeding improves children's health most US hospitals fall short of international guidelines for helping new mothers breast-feed, officials said Tuesday.
The report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came a day after the US government ordered health plans to begin covering lactation services for new mothers next year as part of an overhaul in women's preventive health care.
"Hospitals need to better support breast-feeding, as this is one of the most important things a mother can do for her newborn. Breast-feeding helps babies grow up healthy and reduces health care costs," said CDC chief Thomas Frieden.
Low rates of breast-feeding end up costing the United States $2.2 billion dollars a year because formula-fed babies tend to have higher rates of obesity, respiratory and ear infections and require more medical care, the CDC said.
The CDC's national survey of maternity practices found that less than four percent of US hospitals provided a "full range" of 10 recommended support services, and only 14 percent of hospitals had a written breast-feeding policy.
Just one third allowed new babies to "room-in" with their mothers rather than send them overnight to a nursery, while 75 percent had no follow-up support once mothers left the hospital, usually two days after giving birth.
In nearly 80 percent of hospitals, "healthy breast-feeding infants are given formula when it is not medically necessary," which makes it "much harder for mothers and babies to learn how to breast-feed," the CDC said.
The World Health Organization/UNICEF Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative sets forth 10 steps to successful breast-feeding, which includes having a written hospital policy, training staff how to help, and educating moms about the benefits.
Other elements include helping new moms breast-feed within an hour of the baby's birth and not giving newborns pacifiers or anything to drink other than breast milk unless needed.
"In the United States most women want to breast-feed, and most women start," said Ursula Bauer, director of CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
"But without hospital support many women have a hard time continuing to breast-feed, and they stop early. It is critical that hospitals take action to fully support breast-feeding mothers and babies."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be fed only breast milk for the first six months of life and continue receiving breast milk for one year.
About 60 percent of mothers are breast-feeding when they leave the hospital, and about one in five are breast-feeding at six months, according to the most recent AAP data.
The National Institutes for Health notes that "even with help, though, some women still have trouble breast-feeding or cannot breast-feed."
Women with certain conditions, such as HIV or active tuberculosis, or women who are drinking alcohol, abusing drugs or taking certain medications are advised not to breast-feed.