WASHINGTON — U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, endorsing a global campaign to reduce reliance on baby formula, urged U.S. health providers to take steps to increase the percentage of mothers who breast-feed to 75% by the turn of the century.
Elders, appearing at Georgetown University Hospital's maternity ward, said that she wants U.S. hospitals and physicians to educate women about the advantages of breast-feeding and to stop distributing baby formula or literature promoting its use to new mothers.
Her appeal is part of a worldwide breast-feeding initiative launched by the United Nations Children's Fund--formerly the U.N. International Children's Emergency Fund--which points to scientific evidence proving that breast-feeding reduces infant mortality and a host of diseases.
"There is no nutrition better than mother's milk," Elders said.
About 56% of new U.S. mothers now breast-feed their infants but the numbers have been decreasing in recent years and "children are suffering as a result," said UNICEF Executive Director James Grant.
Health experts project that, if all mothers were able to breast-feed for at least 12 weeks after giving birth, the U.S. infant mortality rate--about 39,000 deaths per year--would decline by 4,000.
Elders downplayed recently reported incidents of "insufficient milk syndrome," a rare condition that prevents mothers from breast-feeding their infants, saying that it is "a very infrequent occurrence."
But the problem "underscores the need for an early examination of an infant discharged from the hospital as well as ongoing support for new families," said the American Academy of Pediatrics, which touted breast-feeding but urged mothers to switch to formula if they have difficulty producing mother's milk.
Other health experts, however, warned new mothers that the Food and Drug Administration has recalled 22 batches of formula for health reasons since 1980.
"The answer," said Dr. Miriam H. Labbok, "is adequate . . . care for all mothers and babies, no matter what their feeding choice, through fully educated health personnel . . . and through workplace flexibility."
Labbok, an expert at Georgetown's Institute for Reproductive Health, urged doctors to sign on to UNICEF's Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative. The policy asks health providers to train new mothers in breast-feeding and give newborn infants no food or drink other than breast milk unless medically necessary.
By agreeing to the initiative, hospitals also pledge to train their personnel in breast-feeding and foster bonding between mother and child by keeping them together 24 hours a day.
Elders said that teaching doctors more about breast-feeding is crucial because "you can have a Ph.D. and not know how to feed a baby."
She visited with a new mother staying at the hospital and greeted others attending her speech.
"I know quite a few other first-time moms who are not aware of the benefits of breast-feeding," said Melinda Bullock, 25, as she struggled to keep 5-month-old Drew from squirming. "There's no support mechanism to get them going.
"Everyone hears that it's painful at first and most people don't get past that to receive the benefits of it," she said.
But Bullock said that her son is well-nourished.
"Once he got the hang of it," she said, "he really got the hang of it."