Overwhelming evidence supports the notion that newborns' exclusive source of nutrition for the first six months of their lives should be mothers' breastmilk, and efforts to promote the practice has paid off throughout much of California and the nation. Kern County seems to be getting the message -- but slowly.

Statewide, 60 percent of newborns are fed exclusively breastmilk, according to the California Department of Public Health. Kern County's numbers are only a little better than half that: 36 percent, although the statistics vary widely by birth hospital.

According to the UC Davis Lactation Center and the California WIC Association, two of the 15 lowest-scoring hospitals in the state, based on the percentage of new mothers who choose to breastfeed, are in Kern County: Delano Regional Medical Center (less than 2 percent) and Kern Medical Center (16 percent), based on 2010 data, the most recent available. One Kern County hospital made the top 15 in the state: Ridgecrest Regional Hospital, where 83.5 percent of mothers chose to breastfeed.

Things are getting better, though. Kern County's overall score in 2004 was a mere 23 percent. Bakersfield Memorial Hospital has more than doubled the share of new mothers who breastfeed exclusively, from 18.4 percent in the 2004 report to 37 percent in the most recent survey. San Joaquin Community Hospital has tripled its score over the same period, from 15 percent to 48 percent. Mercy Southwest Hospital jumped from 40.4 percent to 57 percent.

Some hospitals have programs in place that offer new mothers support for breastfeeding, but others do not, decreasing the chance that they will breastfeed once they bring the baby home. A new law that takes effect in January, Senate Bill 502, aims to improve on the status quo by requiring that all perinatal hospitals in the state have an infant feeding policy, post the policy in their perinatal unit or on their website and routinely communicate it to all staff members.

Such a policy could also have the effect of creating a tough-love approach to breastfeeding education: As the San Jose Mercury News reports, based on interviews with breastfeeding advocates, hospitals that simply try to make new mothers' stay as comfortable and stress-free as possible also tend to have lower success rates convincing mothers to be their child's exclusive source of nutrition. Firmer prompting, they say, will go a long way.

Strong evidence supports the theory that breastfeeding during the first four months of life lowers the risk of pneumonia and bronchitis in infants. Breastfeeding also reduces the liklihood of other health issues such as one that's all too common in Kern County -- obesity. More than 60 percent of Kern County residents are considered obese based on guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Compared with California as a whole, Kern County also has a higher rate of infant mortality, which likely has a link to the relative lack of breastfeeding mothers here.

But Kern County hospitals are getting there. The mandates of SB 502 will help further -- and in fact should help local maternity wards more than other parts of California. Here's hoping local hospitals embrace the change.