updated 4/30/2008 11:22:33 AM ET 2008-04-30T15:22:33

The U.S. breast-feeding rate has hit its highest mark in at least 20 years with more than three-quarters of new moms nursing their infants, according to a government report released Wednesday.

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About 77 percent of new mothers breast-feed, at least briefly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

"It looks like it is an all-time high" based on CDC surveys since the mid-1980s, said Jeff Lancashire, a CDC spokesman.

Experts attributed the rise to education campaigns that emphasize that breast milk is better than formula at protecting babies against disease and childhood obesity. A changing culture that accommodates nursing mothers may also be a factor.

The percentage of black infants who were ever breast-fed rose most dramatically, to 65 percent. Only 36 percent were ever breast-fed in 1993-1994, the new study found.

For whites, the figure rose to 79 percent, from 62 percent. For Mexican-Americans, it increased to 80 percent, from 67 percent.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher celebrated the report's findings, noting that black women have historically had lower breast-feeding rates.

"It was very impressive that when it comes to beginning to breast-feed, African-American women have had the greatest progress," said Satcher, who is now an administrator at Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine.

The new report is based on a comprehensive federal survey involving in-person interviews as well as physical examinations. The findings are based on information for 434 infants from the years 2005 and 2006.

A telephone survey of thousands of families, released last year, found that 74 percent of infants in 2004 had been breast-fed.

At least three types of CDC surveys have shown breast-feeding rates moving upward since the early 1990s, officials said.

The latest CDC report found rates of breast-feeding were also lowest among women who are unmarried, poor, rural, younger than 20, and have a high school education or less.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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