Newswise — The opinions of family and friends appear to be the most significant factor in whether low-income mothers breast feed their children.
That's the central finding from a study by researchers at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and the JPS Health Network in Fort Worth.
"In the study, women were most significantly influenced by what they perceived to be the opinions of people close to them such as their husband or partner, siblings, friends and parents," says Gina Jarman Hill, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at TCU. "Husbands or partners were the most influential."
Eighty-eight new or soon-to-be mothers were surveyed about their intentions to breast feed by Hill and student researchers. Dr. Hill, Dennis B. Arnett, a marketing professor at Texas Tech, and Eileen Mauk, director of food and nutritional services for JPS Health Network developed the protocol and analyzed the results. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed had annual household incomes of $20,000 or less.
They were asked about their knowledge and beliefs on breast feeding and its health benefits; also their attitudes toward the practice of breastfeeding. They were questioned about the views held toward breastfeeding by people important to them. They also were asked whether they intended to breast feed.
The survey sample displayed mostly positive attitudes about breast feeding despite a low level of knowledge (39 percent correct) about the benefits of the practice. But the researchers found no statistical relationship between the positive attitudes held by the pregnant women and their intent to breast feed.
Instead, the key factor in whether a woman intended to breast feed was the views of what the researchers call "referent others," specifically people important to the new mothers.
Those who answered that "Most people who are important to me think I should breast feed," correlated closely to those who said, "After I have my baby I plan to breastfeed."
For that reason, the researchers urge that education about breast feeding be extended to opinion-shapers as well as to pregnant women.
"Family members and infants' fathers should be included in the education and promotion of breast feeding," says Dr. Hill.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encourages the health benefits of breastfeeding and the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breast feeding for the first six months of a baby's life.
The study, titled "Breast-feeding Intentions Among Low-Income Pregnant and Lactating Women," appeared in the March-April 2008 issue of The American Journal of Health Behavior. In the survey sample, 69 percent of the women were Hispanic, 18 percent were African-American, and eight percent were non-Hispanic white.