Few moms breastfeed long enough, Statscan says

By ANDRÉ PICARD The Globe and Mail

Eighty-five per cent of Canadian women breastfeed their newborn babies, but fewer than half still do so by six months, according to newly released data from Statistics Canada.In fact, a mere one in six moms breastfeeds exclusively for the first six months, meaning that the vast majority of women are ignoring public-health recommendations.

Wayne Millar of the health statistics division of Statistics Canada said the stark difference between the recommendations and real life poses a major challenge for public health. The problem lies in the absence of support for breastfeeding mothers, he said.

"The sharp drop in breastfeeding in the first weeks after leaving hospital suggests a lack of reinforcement in the family and the community," Mr. Millar said.

Dr. Jack Newman, a pediatrician who runs the breastfeeding clinic at North York General Hospital in Toronto, agreed but was much more blunt in his assessment.

"We’ve convinced mothers that breastfeeding is good for their babies but the support and advice they get in hospitals is appallingly bad," he said. For example, they are often told to stop breast feeding if they have sore nipples, rather than how to treat the problem. "What we're doing to women is cruel."

According to the Statistics Canada survey, the principal reasons women stop breastfeeding early is because they do not have enough milk, the child weans himself, the demands of work or school, and fatigue and inconvenience.

But the co-author of the popular book Dr. Jack Newman’s Guide to Breastfeeding, said there is "no reason 99 per cent of women shouldn't be able to breastfeed exclusively to six months . . . virtually all the problems we hear about can be easily prevented."

Carol-Anne Brockington, a Newmarket, Ont., doula (trained aid for women in labour), who offers breastfeeding support, said proper technique is essential and can prevent a lot of problems. In particular, she said, new mothers need to help the baby latch on to the breast, and distinguish between a baby who is drinking, and one who is merely sucking. "If the baby isn't latched on properly, it’s similar to drinking from a straw with a hole in it," Ms. Brockington said.

She said one of the most common problems she encounters is that women don't know where to turn for advice because their mothers and caregivers often bottle-fed their own children. According to Statscan, less than 25 per cent of mothers initiated breastfeeding in 1965; at that time, breastfeeding was often actively discouraged in favour of the "convenience" of formula.

The number of women initiating breastfeeding has risen steadily, reaching 85 per cent in 2003.

But stark regional and cultural differences remain. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 63 per cent of women breastfeed, while the rate is 93 per cent in British Columbia, according to Statscan. Women in urban areas are more likely to breastfeed than those in rural areas -- 86 per cent versus 80 per cent. Immigrants are more likely to breastfeed than Canadian-born women -- 92 per cent versus 83 per cent. And older moms are more likely to breastfeed than younger ones.

The Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Paediatric Society and the World Health Organization all recommend that babies be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life, saying that it "provides all the nutrients, growth factors and immunological factors a healthy, term infant needs."