Thanks to an educational push by organizations such as La Leche and government public-health campaigns, breastfeeding is more widespread today. But it's still not as universal as it ought to be, considering the numerous health benefits it confers to both mother and child. In fact, certain sociocultural factors can influence whether a woman will nurse her child, and for how long. Consider the following:
Geography In the South, less than 55 percent of babies are breastfed when they leave the hospital; less than 30 percent are still nursing at 6 months of age. In Western states such as California, Oregon and Washington, more than 75 percent of babies are initially breastfed; at 6 months, more than 50 percent of these infants are still nursing.
Ethnicity Eighty-two percent of Asian children are initially breastfed, and at age 6 months, 47 percent are still nursing; for Hispanic/Latinos, it's 79 percent and 42 percent, respectively; for white children, it's 76 percent and 42 percent; for American Indians, 67 percent and 33 percent; and for black/ African-Americans, 60 percent and 27 percent.
Income Across all races, the percentage of infants ever breastfed is 23 to 26 points higher among those whose parents are in the highest income group compared with those in the lowest.
Marital status Seventy-eight percent of children born to married mothers are initially breastfed, and 45 percent are still nursing at 6 months of age. For unmarried moms, the stats are 60 percent and 25 percent.
These disparities can be explained by a single common factor. "Women who breastfeed tend to be more educated," says Kathy Baker, manager of the peer-counseling program at La Leche League. "They're more aware of their options."
Lawrence agrees. "It was educated women who led the march to the bottle, and now they're leading the march back to the breast," she explains. "There's about a 20-year lag--the less-well-educated women are just getting the message today."
Yet there's one other cultural dynamic that can influence a woman's decision to breastfeed, and it's a big one.