Breastfeeding may reduce infant mortality


New research adds more weight to breastfeeding when possible By Eryn McGary :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

photo courtesy David C. Arendt One source of breastfeeding information is the La Leche League International's hotline, (800) LA-LECHE.

Breastfeeding may reduce the risk of death for infants in their first year of life, according to a recently published study.

"Our research found that we can't tell if the benefit is actually from the mother's milk or the breastfeeding package-mother and child bonding," says Dr. Aimin Chen, one of the authors of the study released by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "What we do see is that if we encourage moms to breastfeed, we'll see the mortality rate among infants decrease slightly."

What's more, looking only at infants 3 months or older, researchers found those who were breastfed longer had still less chance of dying-40 percent less-in their first year.

In fact, Chen says she believes her research shows promoting breastfeeding can potentially prevent up to 720 infant deaths in the U.S. each year-a small victory given the nation's 4 million births per year, but a victory nonetheless.

The study, which examined death rates among babies between 28 days and 12 months, was published in the May issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the Elk Grove Village-based American Academy of Pediatrics. Researchers compared the medical records of 1,204 children who died of causes other than congenital diseases or cancer with those of 7,740 still alive after one year. Of those, babies who were breastfed had a 20 percent lower risk of dying than those who did not nurse.

Adjusted to negate factors that could contribute to neonatal deaths, including the mother's age and smoking history and the baby's birth weight and congenital abnormalities, the study also controlled external factors such as sex, race and socioeconomic status.

The study is timely as discussion about the benefits of breastfeeding currently commands a national spotlight. With only 35 percent of women still nursing six months after their child's birth, breastfeeding rates are significantly below the government's goal of 50 percent.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a national breastfeeding awareness advertising campaign to address this issue. Expected to hit American airwaves this month after repeated delays, the campaign emphasizes the risks associated with not breastfeeding, including higher rates of childhood obesity, diarrhea and respiratory and ear infections. Another study released last month by scientists at Britain's Institute of Child Health indicates adolescents who were breastfed as babies could have even lower cholesterol levels than their formula-fed peers.

"I think formula companies are really scrambling right now," says Katy Lebbing, a certified lactation consultant and manager of the Center for Breastfeeding Information at Schaumburg-based La Leche League International. "Once this campaign hits, and it will, it's going to change the U.S., just like the cigarette problem changed years ago."

Until last month, Chicago-area lactation consultants worried that these formula company concerns could deliver a major blow to breastfeeding advocacy.

Currently under construction and slated to open in April 2007 as the third-largest maternity hospital in the United States, Northwestern Memorial Hospital's new Prentice Women's Hospital received a significant donation last year from Mead Johnson Nutritionals, manufacturer of Enfamil brand formulas. The April 2003 edition of the hospital's internal newsletter, Connections, announced that four of the facility's well-baby nurseries would be named in recognition of the formula company.

When they learned of Northwestern's decision this past February, area lactation consultants led by Barbara Hardin, president of the Cicero-based Metropolitan Illinois Lactation Consultants, wrote a letter expressing their dismay to Anne Bolger, senior vice president of women's health at Northwestern Memorial. Citing World Health Organization codes and U.S. governmental policies that stress the negative impact formula marketing can have on breastfeeding rates, the letter asked the hospital not to name the nurseries after Mead-Johnson.

Though Hardin and her colleagues never received an answer, Northwestern Memorial is no longer planning on naming the nurseries after any formula company, according to hospital spokeswoman Kelly Sullivan.

"Mead Johnson tabled the idea themselves and suggested we name our well-baby nurseries after individuals who had done a lot for the hospital," Sullivan says, emphasizing Prentice's dedication to breastfeeding as the preferred source of nutrition for babies.

Mead Johnson officials did not return repeated telephone calls from Chicago Parent seeking their comment on the controversy.

Sullivan continues: "Our relationship with Mead Johnson dates back many years, and includes capital gifts. But it also includes a lot of money for lactation training and consulting, breastfeeding information and brochures.

"Some women simply can't breastfed," she continues. "What do lactation consultants want? To shut down formula manufacturing completely?"

Hardin says that formula is necessary for mothers who have no other alternative, but says it should be treated like prescription medication.

"Parents should be aware of the risks involved so they can make an informed choice," Hardin says.

And while she is grateful new mothers at Prentice will not visit their babies in the Mead Johnson nursery, she worries that even by accepting money from the company, Northwestern is sending the wrong message.

"I think it undermines breastfeeding and it keeps us a bottle-feeding culture," Hardin says.

La Leche League's Lebbing agrees. "It's an endorsement by association. Yes, the money is so lucrative-I understand that. But it has a lot of strings attached to it. The cheese in the mousetrap isn't always free."

Eryn McGary, a Chicago writer, is the aunt of Ian, 2½, and Reagan, 3 months.


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