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LDH's breastfeeding peer counselors share accomplishments, stories to celebrate National Breastfeeding Month

The Louisiana Department of Health’s (LDH) Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Bureau of Family Health (BFH) are celebrating National Breastfeeding Month by reaching key goals in the Department’s FY22 Business Plan to support breastfeeding families in Louisiana.

WIC has increased its breastfeeding peer counselor coverage in WIC clinics from 43% (August 2021) to 73% (June 2022) statewide, providing support to new mothers who are breastfeeding their babies – a role that became more vital during this year’s formula shortage crisis.

BFH has awarded new designations to 16 birthing facilities through the breastfeeding quality improvement initiative The Gift, a program first started in 2006 that was relaunched this year as The Gift 3.0. A total of 42 out of 48 birthing facilities in Louisiana now have this designation. 

Strengthening LDH programs that target enhanced breastfeeding practices and quality of care in Louisiana hospitals holds the potential to improve the lives of mothers and their babies across Louisiana, and particularly among vulnerable populations that have faced historical barriers. Breastfeeding rates in particular are too low: 70% of Louisiana mothers initiate breastfeeding compared to 84% nationally.

The FY22 Business Plan’s emphasis on collaboration across teams includes improving coordination between The Gift 3.0, which is hospital-based, and clinic and home-based resources available through WIC.

First food for babies – be it breast milk or infant formula – has become a hot topic this year amid the infant formula shortage that emerged early in 2022 and has continued throughout the summer. Among other issues, the shortage placed a spotlight on the critical need for breastfeeding and formula education for new mothers, and renewed a much-needed conversation about the need to support mothers who choose to breastfeed, especially in the workplace, and the challenges mothers face when formula supplies are in short supply.

“There are many benefits of breastfeeding for those who can and choose to do so. Data show that breastfeeding can help protect babies against some short and long-term illnesses and diseases. Breastfed babies also have a lower risk of asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The benefits extend to the mom too – breastfeeding can reduce mom’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure,” said LDH Secretary Dr. Courtney N. Phillips. “But it is totally normal to have questions about breastfeeding. Our WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselors do a great job of meeting mothers where they are, providing information and guidance to help mothers balance their work and pumping schedules. Their efforts are helping to change the overall health outcomes for mom and baby.”

To celebrate National Breastfeeding Month, LDH asked WIC’s breastfeeding peer counselors to share stories from the field about their work, and what they hear from new mothers. Peer counselors who work in WIC clinics have worked with mothers throughout the formula shortage, both in helping them locate formula and in helping them strategize and problem-solve any breastfeeding complications.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, and then continuing breastfeeding while introducing complementary foods until a child is 12 months old or older. You can read the full recommendation here.

“Moms are actually open to the idea of breastfeeding and what it would look like for them. I like to tell moms that initiating breastfeeding doesn't have to be a permanent decision; however it can be one that assists you while you figure out what the shortage looks like in the stores around you. Being a peer counselor for Region 7 [Shreveport area] has been more than breastfeeding education. It is meeting a mom where she is, trying to understand her goals and sometimes just being an encouraging voice that she is enough. If we can get one person to breastfeed, we are truly changing the lives of generations.”

– Kendra Kelly, Region 7 (Shreveport area)

Usually what I experience is women not giving their baby or themselves time to work on issues. They want things done fast. That can be difficult for new babies. I remind them that they are learning together.”

– Angie Ford Jerry, Region 8 (Ruston area)

“To encourage moms, it’s important to empathize and be an active listener. Working moms often express how ‘draining’ pumping can be, especially balancing workload and stepping away to focus on pumping during work hours. I send lots of encouraging words to mom, affirm that she is doing the best she can. Take it one day at a time. I work with moms to gauge their work schedule, and help her come up with a pumping schedule.”

– Jenna Conner, Region 4 (Acadiana)

“Prenatal moms are often concerned that they won't be able to breastfeed or are discouraged from breastfeeding by family. Validating moms' feelings while also providing information about the support we have and the benefits for them and their babies often opens their minds to possibly breastfeeding. I have also told moms that considering the formula shortage, any amount she can breastfeed will help to reduce the amount of formula she may need to try to hunt down. The work of the Breastfeeding Peer Counselor program and the promotion of breastfeeding by clinic staff is working! We are changing overall health outcomes for these moms and babies!”

– Jenica Walker, Region 3 (River Parishes)

“Mrs. S. was having her second child and always thought she had low milk production, having not been able to breastfeed her first child past six weeks. With her second child, she was determined to breastfeed for a year. The first six weeks were perfect, but things changed when Mrs. S. went back to work. Mrs. S. became discouraged and felt like requesting to pump every three hours from her manager seemed demanding. That’s when educating mom about the breastfeeding rights in Louisiana and requesting mom to be an advocate for her family paid off. Within our next call mom had a great routine at work and was pumping every three hours in an eight-hour shift with her manager’s approval in a private empty room. Overall mom believed in herself and took all the tips and tricks to succeed in her breastfeeding journey. Now it’s been almost six months and she is still breastfeeding strong. I was truly honored to be her peer counselor and see her take my advice into action.”

– Saeda Salim, Region 2 (Baton Rouge)