By Natalie Alcoba, National Post

Diana Paulina Servin has mastered the art of breast feeding. She is three weeks old, wearing sockets decorated with lambs and a daffodil yellow toque as she fusses for some milk from mom. Alma Avila is happy to oblige, having developed an affinity for breast feeding with her twin boys, who are now toddlers.

It is cheaper, it is easier and it is natural, she says.

Ms. Avila's preference for breast feeding is something that health officials want to see more of, after results from a Toronto study showed that most new moms were not feeding their babies only breast milk six months after birth.

"We know that breast feeding makes a big difference in the health of mothers and babies, but what hospitals do makes a big difference in whether mothers breast feed," Dr. David McKeown, Toronto's medical officer of health said yesterday.

Researchers surveyed some 1500 first time mothers and found that while almost all (95.7%) had started some breastfeeding in hospital, the rate of exclusive breast feeding was 63% at discharge and dropped to 17.5% six months later.

Rates at discharge also varied depending on the location: some hospitals were as low as 30%, others as high as 80%. Among the most successful is Toronto East General Hospital, the only Toronto hospital to have achieved "Baby Friendly" status. Dr. McKeown urged other facilities to obtain that designation by meeting the World Health Organization's criteria, including educating mothers about breast feeding and only giving newborns breast milk unless medically indicated. "And hospitals should stop providing free infant formula to mothers when they leave the hospital as the results in our study show that providing formula decreases the chance that the women will exclusively breast feed through six months," he said. The study showed that 39% of respondents had received free formula upon leaving.
Officials said hospitals get funding in exchange for handing out formula.

"It's serious money," said Linda Young, director of maternal newborn and child health at Toronto East General. "It's not that money doesn't go to good use, which is probably why it's more difficult to give it up."

The world health organizaiton, Health Canada, the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care in Ontario and Toronto Public Health all promote exclusive breast feeding to six months of age. Dr. McKoewn said research shows that breast feeding reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, gastrointestinal, ear and respitory infections during infancy and childhood.

Teresa Pitman, spokesperson for La Leche League Canada, was elated to hear that more than 95% of women were doing at least some breast feeding in hospital, but called the 63% number concerning. Still, she said the U.S. tends to be worse. She said the rate of any breastfeeding is about 70%.

Alma Avila, originally from Mexico, says she hears new mothers worry they won't be able to produce enough milk for their baby, and she admits she was worried about it too. "This little one is so big," she said in Spanish as Diana dozes off immediately after a feeding, "I think she eats too much."

National Post

Photo: Alma Avila breast feeds her 2-week-old daughter Diana at Toronto East General Hospital. (Aaron Lynett/National Post)

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