Breast-feeding is cheaper than formula, protects babies from diseases and may help reduce future chronic conditions such as asthma and obesity. Yet it's still an underused option in Orange County, according to prenatal experts.
In Orange County, 48 percent of newborns are exclusively breast-fed in hospitals, which ranks the county 37th among the 58 counties in California, according to the state Department of Health. Nevada County is first at 87 percent.
Rates of individual hospitals in Orange County range from 16 percent to 82 percent.
"When you look at Orange County, you will see huge disparities in breast-feeding rates, and it is the safety-net hospitals that are the worst," said Pamela Pimentel, CEO of MOMS Orange County, a provider of prenatal services and education.
The California WIC Association calls breast-feeding a "social justice issue." Federal health officials recently announced a campaign to remove barriers to breast-feeding in order to lengthen the time babies get nourishment from breast milk. The cost savings from longer breastfeeding, resulting from treating fewer infant illnesses, are estimated in billions of dollars.
Pimentel said it's easy to blame the low rates on the preferences of the mothers — disadvantaged women traditionally have breast-fed at lower rates — but recent research shows that supportive breast-feeding policies at hospitals can reduce the gap.
Such policies include educating women on the benefits of breast-feeding and not offering mothers baby formula unless it's medically recommended, according to a study by the California WIC Association.
Experts say only about 10 percent of infants should get formula, but it remains prevalent in maternity wards, partly because breast-feeding requires a learning process and formula at first can be an easier and faster way to feed. The problem is that early bottle-feeding can undermine breast-feeding, which is the reason hospitals play a big role in influencing long-term feeding practices.
MOMS encourages clients to resist pressure to accept formula, even offering "no formula" stickers for expectant mothers to attach to their gowns during delivery.
Cultural barriers also discourage longer and more widespread breast-feeding.
Some immigrants believe that living in the U.S. means embracing modern products and leaving traditional practices behind, said Yvette Bojorquez, director of client services at MOMS. In other cases, family members pressure new mothers to use formula.
Finally, many mothers must return to work and can't be with their newborn all the time. In these cases, MOMS encourages mothers to breast-feed for as many weeks as possible.
— AMY DePAUL