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Interactive Map: Breast-Feeding Rates Vary Widely Across N.J.

State pushes hospitals to encourage mothers to nurse their babies, citing health benefits.

The rate at which New Jersey women nurse infants varies widely, according to a study by the state Department of Health, which says hospitals can and should try to encourage breastfeeding because it has health benefits for both mothers and infants.

The agency’s research has convinced state officials to seek to increase breastfeeding rates throughout the state. The department expects in September to adopt rules requiring hospitals to teach new parents about the benefits of breastfeeding and offer support to nursing mothers both right after delivery and after they have gone home. The rule was proposed in February and the public comment period ended April 5.

“Breastfeeding is universally accepted as optimal for infant, maternal and public health. Breastfeeding provides superior nutrition, prevents disease, and enhances infant development,” wrote the authors of “Breastfeeding and New Jersey Maternity Hospitals: A Comparative Report,” which was issued last summer.

The proposed rules state that there is a correlation between breastfeeding and a lower incidence of chronic disease, including childhood obesity.

While breastfeeding rates have been rising since the late 1990s, the increase has been among mothers who supplement breast milk with formula. The incidence of exclusive breastfeeding had been declining until 2009. State officials are hoping to continue to boost those rates: In 2011, about 40 percent were exclusively breastfeeding and more than 75 percent who breastfeeding at least part of the time and supplementing with formula.

Only three other states, New York, California, and Massachusetts, require hospitals to establish policies that encourage breastfeeding.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ "Healthy People 2020" objectives include making breastfeeding a national priority. It has set a goal of 81.9 percent nationwide. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 79.7 percent of New Jersey mothers reported ever having breastfed their infants.

According to the state report, the rate of breastfeeding varies based on population characteristics, including maternal age, race and ethnic origin, and education. The percentage of new mothers who exclusively nursed their newborns for 24 hours before discharge from the hospital in 2011 ranged from a low of 4.6 percent at Kimball Medical Center in Lakewood to a high of 86 percent at South Jersey Hospital in Elmer.

The authors of the report tried to account for the demographic differences by also presenting a standardized score indicating whether the hospital’s breastfeeding rate was about what was expected, given its population, or higher or lower. Two hospitals -- University Hospital in Newark and Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton -- had rates more two times higher than expected given the demographics.

South Jersey Hospital is one of four in the state designated as Baby Friendly by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. The others are Capital Health System, CentraState and Jersey Shore. To qualify, hospitals have to meet 10 criteria, including having a written breastfeeding policy, trained staff able to implement the policy and helping mothers to breastfeed within an hour of the child’s birth. Three of the four hospitals – Capital, Jersey Shore and CentraState – got $10,000 state grants to help implement the 10 steps.

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