By William L. Haar
May 22, 2013
What a difference a hospital can make.
Four years ago, my wife gave birth to our first child. She went to the hospital planning to breastfeed, but found that she had to fight against the tide to achieve her goals. Our nurses were mostly kind, but lacked any training to support her as she struggled with soreness and a difficult latch. Hospital administrators congratulated her with “gifts” of formula samples, which sat on the table discouraging her as she struggled on her own to feed our baby “the au naturel way,” as one nurse described it with an eye roll. Even rooming in was a challenge, as the hospital had policies against the mother sleeping with the baby.
Three years later, our second daughter was born at Kaiser Walnut Creek, where they have policies in place that support breastfeeding. It made all the difference. The nurses encouraged my wife to initiate breastfeeding immediately after delivery, my wife had regular meetings with a lactation consultant to troubleshoot, they gave breast pads instead of unsolicited formula as swag, and they encouraged her to sleep with the baby.
These differences have a real impact. Eighty-seven percent of expectant mothers in California enter the hospital intending to breastfeed, yet only 43 percent of them are exclusively breastfeeding when they leave. With about half a million women giving birth every year in California, that’s a lot of moms who are kept from achieving their breastfeeding goals. It’s also a lot of babies who will grow up without the health benefits of breastfeeding, including a reduced risk of SIDS, infections, asthma and diabetes, not to mention a reduced risk of diabetes, postpartum depression, and breast and ovarian cancer in mothers.
A proposed new law, Senate Bill 402, aims to change that. If passed, it would ensure that all perinatal hospitals in California provide mothers and babies with a baseline level of support for breastfeeding modeled after the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, the standard of care recommended by virtually all governmental, academic, and health professional organizations.
This bill is badly needed.
As my wife and so many other mothers know, breastfeeding doesn’t just happen; it is a learned behavior between mother and baby that takes practice, requires support, and often causes a little frustration—especially in those first days when new moms are sleep-deprived, physically exhausted, and looking for guidance. This is the time when hospitals can step up and help mothers navigate the challenges.
The training that hospitals provide to their staff and the practices they implement have a tremendous impact on mothers’ opportunities for success—and the benefits extend far beyond the hospital doors. Two-thirds of mothers who give birth in Baby-Friendly hospitals are breastfeeding when they leave the hospital – that’s 25 points higher than the state average. The differences are even more profound six months later, with mothers supported by Baby-Friendly Hospitals over 12 times more likely to meet guidelines for exclusive breastfeeding than mothers who gave birth in other hospitals.
Right from the start, the hospital where a baby is born has a profound impact on his or her future. Sadly, hospitals that serve low-income communities and communities of color are less likely to have policies that support breastfeeding than hospitals that serve more affluent, white communities.
That’s why it is so important that SB 402, sponsored by Senator Kevin de León, moves through the Senate Appropriations Committee and gets heard by the full Senate. It shouldn’t matter where you live, what color your skin is, or how much money you make – all California mothers and babies deserve support meeting their breastfeeding goals.