While malnutrition plagues numerous developing countries, rates of obesity are at an all-time high in many developed countries, with the highest prevalence in the United States and Mexico.
The health and nutritional status of mothers and infants are directly linked, making appropriate infant feeding a critical first step in preventing these and a variety of other medical conditions.
According to the International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA), "poor feeding practices can lead to malnutrition and obesity, and contribute to an overall decline in the health and welfare of the population."
Research shows that infants who are not exclusively breastfed for their first six months of life are also more likely to develop a wide range of chronic and acute diseases and conditions including ear infections, diarrheal diseases, asthma, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and respiratory illness. In addition, mothers who do not breastfed are at an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Hernando County is keeping breastfeeding high on the local public health agenda. Spring Hill Regional Hospital has recently been selected to participate in Best Fed Beginnings, a first-of-its-kind national effort to significantly improve breastfeeding rates in states where rates are currently the lowest.
The hospital was one of only 90 across the country selected for this initiative. They will work together in a 22-month learning collaborative, using proven quality improvement methods to transform their maternity care services in pursuit of "Baby-Friendly" designation.
This designation verifies that a hospital has comprehensively implemented the American Academy of Pediatrics-endorsed Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, as established in the WHO/UNICEF Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative. Breastfeeding rates are higher and disparities in these rates are virtually eliminated in hospitals that achieve this status.
The Hernando County Health Department is actively involved in improving the rate of infants who are breastfed in this community. The WIC breastfeeding program found the three significant barriers to breastfeeding are: embarrassment, time and social constraints, and lack of social support.
Women without peer support speak of being fearful, worried, and not confident about their new role as a mother, and concerned about their ability to breastfeed successfully. WIC Peer Counselors (PC) are paraprofessional women, enthusiastic about their breastfeeding success, who want to share their experience.
A PC can make breastfeeding seem less intimidating by serving as a role model. Mothers who have benefitted from peer support state that the PC gave them confidence in their ability to breastfeed and a way out of their worries and lack of confidence.
PCs understand the difficulties and as a result of shared backgrounds and experiences can provide practical guidance in a way that most health professionals cannot. Supervised by a Registered Dietitian, this group offers services in Brooksville and Spring Hill. The WIC program also employees a board certified lactation consultant.
One additional initiative is inclusion of breastfeeding support policies in workplaces. The Hernando County School District is among the first local employers establishing written breastfeeding policies to provide appropriate time and space for nursing mothers to breastfeed.
World Breastfeeding Week runs through Aug. 7 and this year's theme is "The Road to Lifelong Health Begins with Breastfeeding." This is not a road for mothers and babies to travel alone, however. It is important to remember that successful breastfeeding begins with the support of families, health care providers, governments, employers and communities.
For more information on breastfeeding, contact the Hernando County Health Department, (352) 540-6849. An infant feeding phone line is available for nursing moms with questions, (352) 540-6924.