More than 90 percent of the women having babies in the private hospitals of Houston are breast-feeding their infants.

"This is a phenomenon not isolated to Houston," Dr. Buford Nichols, professor of pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine, today told the 145th national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "I've talked at length to my colleagues in Denver, San Francisco, parts of Connecticut and New York, and women are breast-feeding their babies in the same numbers in private hospitals there, too."

In a study he did on new mothers at six private Houston hospitals, Nichold said the more than 90 percent who "take their children home at the breast" compares with less than 10 percent who did so five years ago.

"Women are far more conscious of themselves and the roles they play in life, which includes motherhood," Nichols said in explaining the dramatic increase. "They find they get a strong personal satisfaction from breast-feeding and they're more interested nowadays in developing a mother-infant relationship."

In stark contrast to the women of middle-and upper-middle class background giving birth in private hospitals, Nichols said, no more than 5 percent of the women in public hospital maternity wards are breast-feeding their infants. Part of the reason for the big difference is that public hospitals are ill-equipped to gove mothers the kind of help they need to breastfeed their babies.

Private hospitals have more nurses and better facilities tht allow the quick and easy movement of infants from nurseries to their mothers' sides, Nichols said. Doctors and nurses in private hospitals are also quicker to encourage their patients to take on the chores of breast-feeding their own infants. He said he fired one nurse who refused to allow breast-feeding because she said it was too much work.

The Baylor pediatrician said he is encouraging breast-feeding of infants, in part because it is healthier for the child and may be healthier for the mother.

"Little is known about the science of lactation," Nichols said, "but breast cancer in women who feed their infants at the breast is one-seventh as high as it is in women who do not."

Infants fed at the breast also run a lower risk of infectious diseases which they may pick up while being bottlefed. Nichols said the reasons why breast-feeding is healthier are not known. "These questions are only now being addressed," he said.