Breast-feeding confers many benefits on babies and their moms: Breast-fed babies are less susceptible to infectious illness, for instance, while mothers who never breast-feed or stop doing so early on increase their risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

On top of that, babies who are breastfed for a substantial portion of their first year are at reduced risk of becoming obese. Helping more mothers learn to breast-feed successfully and maintain that practice for a long time should help combat obesity on a society-wide scale. That’s one of the reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be fed only breast milk for their first 6 months and continue to be breast-fed after solid foods are introduced, ideally until they’re at least a year old.

But a report issued yesterday by the CDC finds that hospitals are not doing all they can to encourage and facilitate breastfeeding among their patients.

A survey of practices at almost 2,700 obstetric hospitals and birthing centers found that, in 2009, just 3.5 percent of hospitals had in place at least nine of the “Ten Steps to Successful Breast-feeding” devised by the World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). That number was only a slight improvement over 2007’s 2.4 percent.

Those 10 steps include such things as helping moms breast-feed their infants within the first hour after birth, allowing 24-hour “rooming in” so babies can be breast-fed according to their own schedule, discouraging feeding supplemental formula, and aiding in the at-first-tricky task of getting a newborn to “latch on” to his or her mother’s breast. Hospitals can also follow up with mothers after they’re discharged to encourage them to continue breastfeeding for months to come.

The stakes are pretty high: According to the report, a baby who is breast-fed for nine months is 30 percent less likely to become obese than a baby who isn’t breast-fed at all. That could make a dent in the obesity crisis (17 percent of U.S. children and teens are obese).

But the report notes that while about 80 percent of women in the United States indicate before delivery that they plan to breast-feed and 75 percent actually do begin breastfeeding, half of all new moms have already given their infant formula by the baby’s first week. Only 31 percent are breastfeeding to any extent by the time their babies reach 9 months.

The report comes as we near the end of World Breastfeeding Week, which wraps up Sunday. I bet you didn’t know there was such a thing; I didn’t!