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State lags behind in breastfeeding

By Candace Nelson

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although more mothers seem to be breastfeeding, West Virginia still lags behind the national average, new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.

Over the past decade, breastfeeding rates nationwide have been trending upward. The number of mothers who started their newborns out on breast milk stood at 71 percent in 2000. In 2010, the number had climbed to 77 percent.

But a state-by-state analysis shows West Virginia rounding out the bottom five states for the number of babies that have ever breastfed, at 60.6 percent.

Only Mississippi at 50.5, Kentucky at 52.6, Tennessee at 59.6 and Alabama at 60.4 percent ranked lower, according to the CDC's 2013 Breastfeeding Report Card, which reports statistics from 2010.

The report was released Wednesday, just prior to World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1-7).

Christine Compton, co-founder and manager of West Virginia Breastfeeding Alliance, said there are multiple reasons West Virginia is behind other states.

"In the '40s and '50s, when women went to work, it was a status symbol for them to be able to afford formula. Women don't want to be seen as poor," she said.

"Also in West Virginia, there are supplemental family members who help with children, so it's hard to keep mother and baby together," she said.

Also complicating the situation is a higher-than-average rate of new mothers who smoke and use drugs, she said.

Many mothers also see formula feeding as easier because of the initial learning curve associated with breastfeeding.

"Really, breastfeeding is the easy way. You don't have to clean or mix, measure, sterilize, go purchase. Once you get the hang of it, it's much easier. In the beginning, there can be complications," Compton said.

"It's so much easier to breastfeed because there are complications as far as socioeconomic status goes — it may be harder to purchase formula, transportation is limited, and WIC doesn't provide everything."

Stephanie Whitney, breastfeeding coordinator for West Virginia WIC, said that while WIC does provide supplemental support for formula, it also encourages breastfeeding.

"We do speak to the mom at length about encouraging them to breastfeed. Unfortunately, there are times when mothers have made up their minds — maybe for cultural or family reasons — but we give information on both," Whitney said.

"But there are a multitude of advantages for breastfeeding — simply bonding with the baby, protecting against osteoporosis, ovarian cancer. It helps the kids defend against colds, viruses and allergies. Other studies show it helps improve IQ. It's something we're trying to increase."

West Virginia has increased its initiation rate from about 53 percent in 2010 and 54.1 percent in 2011.

"West Virginia's numbers are increasing — about four points from last year — so we've jumped up quite a bit, that's encouraging," Compton said. "But when looking at the national average, we're still 16 points behind."

Local hospitals are working to improve the rate of breastfeeding in the area.

Beth Hedrick, director of obstetrics at Thomas Memorial Hospital, said the hospital has been encouraging new mothers to breastfeed.

"Our numbers have continued to rise, especially with the addition of a lactation consultant," Hedrick said.

Jamie Peden, the lactation consultant for Thomas Memorial Hospital, said that Thomas' breastfeeding initiation rate is about 60 percent — slightly higher than average for the rest of the state.

Meggan Beckner, clinical coordinator for the newborn nursery and NICU, said it's likely that number is slightly higher due to being in a metropolitan area.

"The population is a little more educated; we have specialists to help. The resources are available here, where they might not be elsewhere," Beckner said.

Charleston Area Medical Center's Women and Children's Hospital is looking into a default option of breastfeeding and having mothers opt-out if they're not interested, spokesman Dale Witte said.

"We're always looking for best practices and someone noticed that a few hospitals around the country had started taking the 'opt out' approach to breastfeeding. These institutions were doing it for the sickest of its patients because mother's milk is the best medicine."

The hospital is discussing the option, but no decision or timelines have been set.

Breastfeeding is the first thing mothers can do for their newborn babies, Compton said. It helps protect against diseases and promotes better health outcomes.

"It's the first line of defense for a healthier population," Compton said.

Contact writer Candace Nelson at or 304-348-5148. Follow her at


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