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In Norway, nursing becomes the norm

Norway has revolutionized a woman's right to breast-feed.

Mothers breast-feed when and where they want: buses, parks, cafes, stores. With rare exceptions, none leave the hospital without breast-feeding or dare ask for infant formula as a substitute. For trouble at home, the phone book obligingly lists a company called Breast-feeding Help.

Working mothers also get a break: Two hours off a day to breast-feed their child, either at home or in the office. Breast-feeding at the desk is not off limits.

While many countries, including the United States and Britain, still struggle to persuade ambivalent mothers, Norway and its neighbor Sweden have overwhelmingly succeeded in promoting the benefits of breast milk.

Today, more than three decades after bottle feeding peaked in the late 1960s, 99 percent of mothers here nurse their newborns in the hospital. Six months later, 80 percent are still nursing, a rate that compares with 20 percent in Britain and 32 percent in the United States.

"You are expected to breast-feed here," said Kristine Fossheim, 31, a Norwegian nurse who is taking a one-year maternity leave to care for her 10-month-old son, Erik. "There is a real focus on it from everybody.

"Women who are not able to are very, very sad," she added. "They feel like failures if they cannot breast-feed."

Studies have shown that babies who are breast-fed are generally healthier, suffering fewer colds, ear infections and stomach distress than babies who are given only infant formula. Some studies have also linked breast milk to higher IQs.

While doctors encourage mothers to breast-feed in America, practical considerations sometimes win out. Short maternity leaves and hectic schedules do not always make it easy for mothers to begin nursing.

American mothers do not feel the same intense peer pressure that Norwegian mothers feel to breast-feed. Nursing babies may benefit more from breast milk, but at the end of the day, formula fed babies also thrive, American mothers say.

Formula, so abundant in the United States, seems almost illicit here. In American hospitals, mothers are given formula samples on their way out the door. Here it is conspicuously absent from hospitals, and advertising it is banned.

Norway succeeded in part because the challenge was manageable: with a small population, there are some 50,000 births a year. It is also socially progressive, relatively educated and wealthy.

But over a span of 35 years it has become a role model for how to swap bottles for breasts.

The turnaround began in 1970, with a grass-roots campaign started by one Norwegian mother, Elisabet Helsing.

At the time, women in Norway were no different from the rest of the Western world when it came to feeding their babies. Bottle feeding was not only modern and hip, it was also heavily promoted by formula companies and doctors. Millions of women in Norway, and all over the Westernized world, abandoned breast-feeding.

"The whole aspect of nurturing was just removed from the breast," said Mary Lofton, a spokeswoman for La Leche League, the first U.S. organization to promote nursing. "Breast-feeding was a real drag. And if you wanted to do it, it was quite a heroic act on your part."

Helsing, though, said she was convinced that breast milk was better than formula. After getting her hands on a book written by La Leche, she wrote her own light-hearted book on nursing in 1970. Then she walked into the Health Ministry and asked an official whether she could print a pamphlet.

That official, pregnant with her fourth child, turned out to be Gro Harlem Brundtland, who became prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s. "She had just taken a master's degree at Harvard, and her subject had been the decline in breast-feeding," Helsing said, with a laugh. "She said okay."

This led to the creation of a number of mother-to-mother groups, which stoked national interest in nursing. The mothers lobbied the government to help reverse the trend in bottle feeding. Before long, leaflets were distributed, mothers' groups secured fi-nancing and hospital staffs received training.

"It's viewed as the modern way of feeding now," said Anne Baerug, the project leader for Norway's National Breast-feeding Center. "It's something that is part of being a mother. It's trendy, good and positive."