Science You Can Use: Racial gaps narrowing in breastfeeding rates

The CDC’s announcement today of its updated breastfeeding statistics by race contained some especially good news for the “breastfeeding gap” between African American mothers and mothers of other races.

First, there is good news across the board.  The CDC reports that among American women generally:

  • Breastfeeding initiation increased from 70.3% to 74.6%.
  • Any breastfeeding at 6 months increased from 34.5%to 44.4%
  • Any breastfeeding at 12 months increased from 16% to 23.4%

This report did not contain information on exclusive breastfeeding.  Those data were most recently reported in the CDC’s 2012 Breastfeeding Report Card.  And yes, these rates, especially at 6 and 12 months are a far cry from the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But let’s look at the numbers by race.

For breastfeeding initiation:

  • White women: Increased from 71.8% to 75.2%
  • African American women: Increased from 47.4% to 58.9%
  • Latinas:  Increased from 77.6% to 80.0% (not statistically significant)

For any breastfeeding at 6 months:

  • White women: Increased from 38.2% to 46.6%
  • African American women: Increased from 16.9% to 30.1%
  • Latinas:  Increased from 34.6% to 45.2%

For any breastfeeding at 12 months:

  • White women: Increased from 17.1% to 23.3%
  • African American women: Increased from 6.3% to 12.5%
  • Latinas:  Increased from 18.2% to 26.3%

(As an Asian American I have to wonder where our numbers – and Native Americans’ too – are, but let’s set that aside for now.)

The bottom line for breastfeeding initiation disparities? “The gap between black and white breastfeeding initiation narrowed from 24.4 percentage points in 2000 to 16.3 percentage points in 2008.”

Yes, the gap is still significant and staring us in the face.  But this rate of change over an eight year period is pretty remarkable.  And if this rate were to continue, the gap’s days are numbered.

And here’s another interesting note from the CDC:

Even when accounting for factors such as socioeconomic status and maternal education, racial/ethnic differences in breastfeeding persist. This persistent gap in breastfeeding rates between black women and women of other races and ethnicities might indicate that black women are more likely to encounter unsupportive cultural norms, perceptions that breastfeeding is inferior to formula feeding, lack of partner support, and an unsupportive work environment.

One thing gives me especially strong faith that breastfeeding initiation rates among African American women will continue to climb.

It turns out that simply following evidence-based breastfeeding policies narrows the breastfeeding initiation gap between races to next to nothing.  And the current push by the CDC, Kaiser Permanente, the Surgeon General, state health agencies, and others to increase the number of Baby Friendly Hospitals and promote adherence to the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding will almost certainly propel this trend.

That, coupled with a lack of bias on the part of health care providers, better cultural acceptance, and support from “moms like us” in the community, will go a long way in narrowing this gap.

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