March 1, 2016

County augments help for breast-feeding moms

fedBob Ellis/staff photographer
Many mothers are breast-feeding their infants in the area, partly because of the efforts of a network of service providers through the Cortland County Breastfeeding Partnership, and an increase in the number of certified lactation counselors. County and Cortland Regional Medical Center records show that 67.6 percent of new mothers are breast-feeding theirinfants when they leave the hospital.

Associate Editor

Kris Valentine Behnke does something pretty common in Cortland County, but less often elsewhere: breast-feed.
It wasn’t easy. There was some pain and her 8-month-old daughter Rosie had some physical problems, allergies and difficulty gaining weight, but Behnke had support and soldiered on. Today, Rosie chatters happily as her mother chats about breast-feeding.
More than two-thirds of new mothers, 67.6 percent, are breast-feeding their infants when they leave the hospital, show records from Cortland County and Cortland Regional Medical Center. Fewer than half the mothers in New York breast-feed, and nationwide the figure is closer to three in 10.
“We’re making it feel normal to breast-feed,” said Anna Bennett of La Leche League of Cortland County. “But it’s really not across the board. It’s not really quite normal yet.”
Still, while the numbers are considerably lower, 17.6 percent of low-income mothers served by the state’s Women Infants Children program continue breast-feeding after six months, on par with the state average and far more than the national average of 12.8 percent.
“What we’re seeing in the dropoff is about the two-month mark, when women go back to work,” said Lisa Beers, a supervising community health nurse with the Cortland County Health Department who oversees the maternal-newborn health program. “We’re trying to find out what the barriers are.”
What’s behind the number — which far exceeds a countywide goal of 48 percent of mothers breast-feeding, is a network of service providers through the Cortland County Breastfeeding Partnership, and an increase in the number of certified lactation counselors.
“We all have certified lactation counselors now,” Beers said: The county Health Department, WIC, CAPCO, La Leche League and Cortland Regional Medical Center.
“More than one organization has been working on it,” added Bennett of La Leche League. “The hospital has been training more and more people.”
In fact the hospital has four counselors, two certified lactation counselors and two international board certified lactation counselors, said Olga Levitskiy, the obstetrics nurse manager and one of the counselors.
Together, the organizations provide a network of resources from personal coaching to home visits to information, community events and even promotional videos to support breast-feeding mothers. The network provides the one thing the counselors say many new mothers lack: support.
“It’s not just the mother who makes this decision,” Levitskiy said. Beyond the effort to nurse, once a mother returns to work, time must be set aside to pump milk, purchase equipment and keep it clean, and have the milk chilled and stored.
And if at any point a mother feels discouraged, a little encouragement goes a long way.
That’s what counselors provided for Behnke.
“I was probably stupidly committed,” she said. Rosie had a posterior tongue tie, making it difficult to suck and swallow, so she didn’t gain weight from nursing. And assorted positions to make nursing happen were difficult and it took several months to find a solution, Behnke said.
The lactation counselors were with her. “We fought hard to make it work,” Behnke said. Fortunately, her part-time job as youth programs manager for Cortland Repertory Theatre wasn’t an obstacle — she has a private office. But there’s still a lot of work.
“Even if you get over all the obstacles, you have to have the energy,” Bennett said. “It’s a third job.”
That’s if mothers even start. Mammals have been on Earth and breast-feeding for 200 million years, and humans for the past 200,000, so it’s a long-established tradition. But Americans have gotten away from the habit in the past few decades with the rise of infant formula.
The convenience of formula comes at a tradeoff. Breast milk includes a number of the mother’s antibodies and hormones that are passed to the baby, something formula cannot do. So breast-feeding is linked to a number of health benefits.
State Labor Law 206a requires employers to provide space and time for a nursing mother to express breast milk for up to three years after birth, but that doesn’t mean every mother will take the opportunity.
“They worry about how they’ll be perceived taking those extra breaks,” Bennett said, even though she believes the baby’s improved health from breast-feeding may lead to the mother taking fewer sick days.
Mothers also need to learn to trust themselves, she added, particularly in the early days when mother and child are trying to figure the best way to nurse. That means continuing or increasing support for breast-feeding after leaving the hospital.
That’s part of Levitskiy’s plan. The hospital hopes to open a dedicated breast-feeding clinic, “I hope by the end of the summer,” Levitskiy said.
Still, family and friends also need to be supportive, the counselors said. “We have women say that if they had just one person to be supportive, they would have done it,” Beers said. “We’ve heard that over and over. It can be just that one person.”
Behnke had many people — a mother who nursed, a supportive husband, Eric, and counselors, but her one person was Rosie: “I really like it; it’s special,” she said. “My body is able to do something very magical.”

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