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To nurse? The black and white picture.

To nurse? The black and white picture

Over the past two decades, there has been what the medical profession sees as a beneficial resurgence in the number of U.S. women choosing to breast-feed. However, data show that blacks are only half as likely to breast-feed as whites, and that black women who do nurse generally stop sooner than nursing whites. To better understand this trend, epidemiologists at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development studied 1,179 first-time mothers in the Washington, D.C., area. In the March PEDIATRICS, Natalie Kurinij and her colleagues say education, rather than race, is the major factor affecting whether and how long women nurse.

In their study, 84 percent of the white mothers and 49 percent of the black mothers initially opted to breast-feed -- far more than the national averages of 65 percent and 33 percent, respectively. The white mothers tended to be about five years older than their black counterparts, and to have had about three years more schooling (16 years). Moreover, white mothers were far more likely to be married, to have a higher family income, to attend childbirth classes and to receive prenatal care from a private physician.

When these were accounted for, the study showed that women -- regardless of race -- were 2.6 times more likely to breast-feed if they had a college education than if they attended high school only, and that those who went to graduate school were 5.2 times more likely than high school graduates to nurses. One other factor correlated with a white mother's choice: Delivering at a university teaching hospital instead of a county public hospital doubled the chance that a woman would nurse.

Among black women, the picture was more complicated. For example, the researchers found that, other things being equal, a black woman was twice as likely to breast-feed if she attended childbirth classes, if she was married or if she was 25 or older. However, even after accounting for these factors, the researchers found that whites were still twice as likely as blacks to breast-feed. Employment may offer a clue why. Kurinij notes that in this study, most whites had professional careers, while most blacks had clerical jobs. If the professional women were able to take longer maternity leaves, she says, this may have fostered a greater commitment to breast-feeding.

Finally, black women who did nurse tended to give it up earlier. After one month, 26 percent of breast-feeding black mothers had quit nursing, while only 10 percent of white mothers had. By seven months, half of those white mothers who chose to nurse were stil breast-feeding, while only 26 percent of their black counterparts were. Women of either race who supplemented nursing with bottled formula during their hospital stay tended to abandon breast-feeding first.
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Title Annotation:race and education as factors affecting decisions about breast-feeding
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 26, 1988
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