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Smarter, healthier children are breastfed. There’s no getting around it.

Breast milk is absolutely better nutritionally than formula. In addition, breastfeeding comes with the added benefits of reduced incidence of ear infections and diarrhea, along with reduced chance of developing diabetes and obesity in later life.

Most new mothers breastfeed their babies at least a little bit but they often find that hospital staff are not so supportive as they could be. As recently as 2011, only 37% of hospitals permit babies to “room in” with their moms. Rooming-in is least common in the Southeastern and Midwestern states.

In addition, a quarter of hospitals and birthing centers feed even breastfed newborns formula and nearly 75% give breast-feeding mothers packages formula as part of their new-baby gift baskets. These actions send the message that breast-feeding is likely to be unsuccessful and that all mothers should consider formula for their children.

However, recent studies demonstrate that babies who are breastfed longer have better receptive language at age 3 years of age and greater verbal and nonverbal intelligence at 7 than formula-fed babies and babies who were breastfed for shorter lengths of time. Scientists calculate that for every month of breastfeeding, children gain an average of .30 points of IQ, resulting in a difference by first grade of 4 full IQ points, a significant difference.

Yet, though about 70% of mothers breastfeed their babies for a little bit, only 35% of white mothers and 20% of African-American mothers are still breast-feeding when their child is six months old.

There are instances when breastfeeding is not possible, such as when a premature child must be tube-fed or when the mother is very ill. But the notion that breastfeeding is difficult or often fails is simply incorrect. Here are some tips for successful breastfeeding:

  1. If you are breastfeeding now, plan to continue at least until your child is one year old. Breastfeeding to two years is considered the best option.
  2. If you are pregnant, plan to breastfeed. Check with your hospital or birthing center to make certain rooming-in is routine and will be offered as a matter-of-course. Plan to spend your first days with your baby “skin-to-skin.” Studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact raises the baby’s body temperature and makes it easier for the child to latch on and nurse. The number of hospitals that routinely offer skin-to-skin contact between mothers and babies is at 54% so this is another thing to check before you select a hospital or birthing center.
  3. Question any formula feeding by hospital staff. If you can, forbid this. Refuse to take home tins of formula you find in your hospital gift basket. Remember that it’s there only as a marketing ploy from formula manufacturers, not as an indicator that you might actually need it.
  4. If you are worried about nursing, get in touch with a mom from your local La Leche League or a post-partum doula. In fact, line up a coach before your baby is born, so you’re ready if you need her.
  5. Finally, resist pressure to quit breastfeeding too early. Yes, it’s difficult to breastfeed once you go back to work. Some employers are not so accommodating as they should be. But your child’s health and intelligence are at stake.

Give your child this first great gift. Breastfeed your baby for at least a year.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.