Key practices that support breast-feeding are much less common in medical centers where the black population is higher than average, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.
These practices include efforts to initiate early breast-feeding, limited use of formula and "rooming-in" (keeping the mother and baby in the same room).
"Breast-feeding has many health benefits for mothers and babies. Hospital practices during childbirth have a major impact on whether a mother is able to start and continue breast-feeding," the study authors noted.
"These findings suggest there are racial disparities in access to maternity care practices known to support breast-feeding," Jennifer Lind and her CDC colleagues wrote in the Aug. 22 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Nationally, breast-feeding rates among black infants are about 16 percent lower than for white infants, the agency said. For this study, the researchers linked data from a 2011 U.S. survey on maternity practices in infant care and nutrition to U.S. Census data on the percentage of blacks living within the zip code area of a given health-care facility.
Looking at more than 2,600 maternity centers overall, the investigators found a wide variation in implementation of 10 policies that support breast-feeding. Those practices included having a written policy supporting breast-feeding, prenatal breast-feeding education and limited use of pacifiers after childbirth.
Where the percentage of black residents was more than 12.2 percent (the national average from 2007 to 2011), the hospitals were less likely than centers elsewhere to meet five important indicators, the study found.
Only 46 percent of hospitals in neighborhoods with more black residents than average promoted early initiation of breast-feeding versus nearly 60 percent of centers in areas with more white residents.
Limited use of breast-feeding supplements was half as likely in hospitals in the more racially diverse neighborhoods (13 percent) compared with hospitals in neighborhoods with more white residents, the findings showed.
And having the baby stay in the room with the mother was standard practice at about 28 percent of hospitals in neighborhoods with more black residents compared to 39 percent of centers in areas with more white residents.
"The reasons for this disparity are unclear. However, this observation could provide insight into the reasons for the persistent gap in breast-feeding rates between black and white babies in the United States," according to a journal news release.
"All hospitals can support mothers' breast-feeding decisions by applying policies and practices proven to be supportive of breast-feeding," the study authors concluded.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about the benefits of breast-feeding.