Georgia still lags behind the national averages on infant breastfeeding rates, a newly released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report card shows.
In 2011 — the latest year the data were available — 79.2 percent of newborn infants started breastfeeding nationally, the report says. The Georgia rate was 70.3 percent, slightly up from the 68.2 percent rate the year before.
Yet once again, the annual report card says that zero Georgia births in 2011 occurred at "Baby-Friendly" hospitals that promote breastfeeding. A handful of other states also had a zero mark. Nationally, the average of births at these designated facilities is 7.79 percent.
Breastfeeding is one of the most effective preventive health measures for infants and mothers. For the baby, breastfeeding reduces the incidence and severity of many infectious diseases, lowers infant mortality and supports healthy development of the brain and nervous system. It also lowers infants' risk of becoming obese later in childhood.
For mothers, breastfeeding reduces the risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease.
"The research on the superiority of breast milk compared to formula is overwhelming and compelling from both a health and fiscal standpoint,'' Merrilee Gober, the board president of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia, told Georgia Health News in commenting about the CDC report.
"Moreover, the bonding that occurs between a mother and baby who breastfeed substantially reduces the risk of later maternal neglect by nearly fourfold," Gober added. "Physically, emotionally and financially, it is in everyone's interest to support breastfeeding."
Gober said she was encouraged by some improvement in Georgia's breastfeeding statistics. "But while we are optimistic about this data, we are not complacent,'' she said. "Georgia still ranks well below the national average in every category measured, and much work is needed to help Georgia continue on a positive trajectory."
Nationally, breastfeeding generally did not continue for as long as recommended, the CDC report says. Of infants born in 2011, 49.4 percent were breastfeeding at 6 months (40.1 percent in Georgia) and 26.7 percent at 12 months (20.7 percent here).
Steps for Baby-Friendly hospital designation include helping moms initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth; practicing "rooming in'' by allowing mothers and infants to remain together 24 hours a day; and connecting mothers with support groups and other resources to help with breastfeeding after the mother and baby leave the hospital.
The Georgia Hospital Association has said in the past that the negative statistics about Baby-Friendly hospitals in the state were misleading. The association said that regardless of whether any of Georgia's hospitals had sought the official Baby-Friendly designation, they were all actively encouraging breastfeeding and were following the nationally recommended practices.
The Georgia Department of Public Health said the CDC report is based on data from a national immunization survey, and the data "may not adequately reflect the complexity of breastfeeding practices by women in Georgia, or even current rates."
Public Health is looking for ways to increase initiation rates — the number of women who try or start breastfeeding — and sustaining breastfeeding to 6 months, said Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for the agency.
"DPH is working on an overall plan to increase breastfeeding here in Georgia, and especially in populations where breastfeeding is most likely to confer measurable health benefits," Nydam said.
Steps the agency is taking, she said, include promoting a "5 STAR" hospital recognition program.
Seven Georgia hospitals have successfully completed the second level of training to become Baby-Friendly 5-STAR hospitals, Public Health said recently. These hospitals promote and support breastfeeding with policies and practices, staff education and post-discharge community referrals.
The hospitals recognized recently were Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville, Tift Regional Medical Center in Tifton, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Midtown Medical Center in Columbus and Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon.
Public Health is also helping employers support mothers who are breastfeeding when they return to work through a worksite health program, Nydam said.
"Employers can do simple, low-cost things like providing a private lactation space with a chair and an electrical outlet, and flexibility in breaks for mothers who are continuing to breastfeed,'' she said.
For women who are eligible for WIC, breastfeeding is encouraged and supported through peer counselors and offering breast pumps, she said.
One statistic where Georgia exceeds the national average is in its number of certified lactation counselors, who provide education and counseling about breastfeeding. Georgia has 6.69 certified lactation counselors per 1,000 live births, versus 3.84 nationally. But its number of board-certified lactation consultants is lower than the national average — 2.5 per 1,000 live births versus 3.48 nationally.
Gober said her organization hopes more hospitals will join "Baby Friendly'' or "5 STAR" initiatives.
"We would like to see Georgia license board-certified lactation consultants so that these clinical experts can be readily available in physician practices with reimbursement from insurance companies as well,'' she added.