After nine months of planning and growing anticipation, the moment when a mother first holds her newborn is a memory that will last a lifetime. And, according to research, the benefits of those first moments, from skin-to-skin contact to breastfeeding, can lead to a lifetime of health and success.
Research underscoring the health benefits of breastfeeding and bonding is fueling a push among communities to encourage “baby friendly” practices that set the foundation for a healthy start. The effort includes engaging hospitals to offer a new standard for maternity care and become designated a Baby-Friendly® Hospital. Based on research that breastfeeding is the optimal first food and is the foundation for a healthy life, Baby-Friendly® Hospitals emphasize the need for breastfeeding and bonding between mother and child. This includes encouraging skin-to-skin contact moments after birth and rooming-in services, as well as providing lactation consultants and immediate breastfeeding time.
“The difference is really incredible,” says Erin Marshall, director of the New Mexico Baby-Friendly® Hospital Project and a mother of two. “There is a blanket of support that surrounds you from the beginning, when doctors sit down with you to talk through important information, to even after you leave, as you participate in the breastfeeding support groups.”
Beyond ensuring that both mother and child are well supported and comfortable, baby-friendly practices are ultimately about the long-term health and well-being of families and communities. Every element of the program, particularly the core practice of breastfeeding, is deeply rooted in medical research and proven practices that show immediate and life-long benefits.
These benefits are something the New Mexico Breastfeeding Task Force knows very well. They have been advocating for breastfeeding since 1988, collaborating with families, doctors, employers and communities to make breastfeeding once again the cultural norm. Dr. Emilie Sebesta, medical director of the Mother-Baby Unit and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico, has been a vocal proponent for breastfeeding in New Mexico as a board member of the task force.
“Nobody disputes that breastfeeding, especially if it is exclusive for the first six months of life, is best for both the mother and baby. It not only shows short-term impacts, such as decreased ear infections and hospitalizations, but also remarkable long-term health, including reductions in heart disease and breast cancer for the mother and obesity and diabetes for her child,” Sebesta said. “Breastfed infants also have improved brain and nervous system development, leading to better academic performance. All of these results are critical for families in New Mexico, where we are ranked among the lowest for child poverty and education.”
Recognizing the importance of these practices, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) partnered with the New Mexico Breastfeeding Task Force to launch the New Mexico Baby-Friendly® Hospital Project in 2012. The initiative helps hospitals navigate the rigorous journey of becoming a designated Baby Friendly® Hospital. Currently, two maternity care hospitals in New Mexico are Baby-Friendly® certified: the Zuni Comprehensive Health Center in Zuni Pueblo, which led the way as the first N.M. hospital to achieve the status and launched prior to WKKF support, and Mountain View Regional Hospital in Las Cruces, which was certified in February 2014. Currently, the New Mexico Baby-Friendly® Hospital Project is supporting five non-native New Mexico hospitals on their path to certification.
“Hospitals are really excited about the possibilities,” Marshall said. “They see the effect the initial changes are having on the mothers and they know that giving families the right start is going to make a big difference down the road.”
To become certified, hospitals must complete the “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding” and fulfill an intensive process for Baby-Friendly® USA Inc., the national accrediting organization. The criteria grew out of work in 1991 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that established best practices for infant feeding and mother/baby bonding.
Having given birth to her second son just months ago, Marshall said she knows first-hand the benefits of having this support system.
“Even though I knew all the practices in theory, I still felt overwhelmed,” she said. “Actually, I had every problem in the book when it came to breastfeeding. So I don’t know what I would have done without my lactation consultant and the support group.”
Native American hospitals across the country are embracing the philosophy and are taking a lead in the Baby-Friendly® Hospital effort. In 2011, as part of the First Lady’s Let’s Move Indian Country initiative, the federal department of Indian Health Services (IHS) committed to getting all of their hospitals Baby-Friendly® certified by 2015 and are also encouraging tribal hospitals, which are federally funded but locally managed, to join.
Baby-friendly practices are particularly important in Native American communities, according to Anne Merewood, director of The Breastfeeding Center at the Boston Medical Center. The high rate of diabetes and obesity in native communities, with up to 39% of Native American children obese or overweight and the alarming 68% increase in diabetes from 1994 to 2004, makes breastfeeding a crucial prevention tool.
Seeing the opportunity and great need for collaboration among hospitals and community organizations serving Native Americans and Alaska Natives nationwide, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation partnered with the BMC Breastfeeding Center to convene the first Maternity Care and Infant Feeding in Indian Country Conference in Albuquerque in 2014. More than 150 people attended, including physicians, nurses and community organizations, from 20 different tribes all over the country.
For many groups, it was an emotional and inspirational experience. Several centers had been working in relative isolation and the ability to share stories and challenges of breastfeeding efforts in native communities provided a sense of solidarity.
Merewood sees the tremendous gains that the Native American communities have made as a motivation for others.
“They have triumphed with less funding, more overburdened systems and significantly impoverished communities,” she said. “Honestly, if the Indian and tribal hospitals can do it, then anyone can and should do it.”