Counselors help women succeed at breastfeeding

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks the rates of Oklahoma babies who are exclusively breastfed (EBF) and how many months they are EBF.

With a goal of supporting the choice to breastfeed, this year's World Breastfeeding Week, Aug.1-7, spotlights the theme of "Empower Parents, Enable Breastfeeding."

"Breastfeeding is in the mother's domain and when fathers, partners, families, workplaces, and communities support her, breastfeeding improves," states an Oklahoma State Department of Health press release.

"World Breastfeeding Week is to bring more awareness and normalization," said Tamarkia Fisher, a lactation consultant and a registered nurse for the Children First program with the Oklahoma Department of Health.

She said breastfeeding initiation rates are higher, and that seems to be because more moms are interested in breastfeeding and its health benefits.

"More moms are talking about their experiences," said Fisher. "It becomes the thing to do instead of just an option. Overall, it makes for healthier kids and healthier communities."

The Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System data from 2017 shows 85.5 percent of Oklahoma mothers began breastfeeding their babies after birth.

According to Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Twila Whitekiller, W.W. Hastings Hospital reports that close to 90 percent of new mothers are initiating breastfeeding.

Whitekiller works in the Cherokee Nation WIC Office - the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The office hosted a come-and-go event Thursday to mark World Breastfeeding Week.

Euphemia John, lactation coordinator at the CN WIC office, said breastfeeding isn't accepted by many in society, especially in this area of the country.

"Breastfeeding has been around since the beginning of time; that's how humanity has survived. Had they been as skeptical, unaccepting and critical as today's society, where would that have left us?" said John.

Fisher suggests the community could use more education and offer more support for moms to help them get through rough times.

"Local breastfeeding support groups can help. I see places now that have special places for breastfeeding moms. Many employers are providing a place for breastfeeding," said Fisher. "Insurance companies are purchasing breast pumps for moms because they know how beneficial it is. Overall, we're making progress."

The WIC counselors want the community to realize breastfeeding is natural and normal, that the breasts are organs meant to feed babies.

"Have respect for women breastfeeding out in public and do not stare," said Michelle Halpain, CN WIC peer counselor. "If they don't like it, they can walk away. Most women cover up so you can't see."

When John was first entering the field, a supervisor told her, "Breastfeeding is not a fad. It's not going away." She is now in her 34th year as a lactation consultant. She said it has been a process to get the program where it is today. She had to start it and find resources.

"It's been the most rewarding job. When I was just graduating from college, I really wanted to help people," she said.

The CN WIC office is hiring two more peer counselors, and interested parties are encouraged to apply. The main requirement is that the woman had to have breastfed for at least six months. She must also have a high school degree, and be willing to help other moms and to be trained.

"It is someone who can relate to questions and counsel a mom who may have concerns. They are there to support them," said Whitekiller. "They have a scope of practice they follow."

The peer counselor would receive training from USDA manuals. Those interested in going further can take a test to become certified lactation counselors.

"It's a desire. They want to be able to reach out and help mothers," said Halpain. "It's rewarding when you help a mom reach their goal."

Fisher said many moms try to set a goal of one year of breastfeeding. After one year, whole milk can be introduced.

"If moms can breastfeed for six months exclusively, that really gives babies optimal benefits," said Fisher. "Any amount of time you are able to breastfeed your baby - just while in the hospital, the first few weeks or first few months - your baby get benefits from that."

The Oklahoma Toddler Survey from 2015-2017 indicates 44.6 percent of mothers were breastfeeding at six months, and 25.1 percent of mothers were breastfeeding at 12 months or more.

The questions most heard by area lactation counselors are about whether the baby is getting enough milk, whether the mom should worry about not producing enough milk, if breastfeeding hurts, the duration of time to breastfeed, and when to wean.

"We don't talk about weaning unless mom approaches us," said Whitekiller. "We've had moms successful in breastfeeding for over a year, tandem feeding, and moms with twins."

WIC serves qualified women who are pregnant, breastfeeding women, and postpartum up to six months. Breastfeeding women may receive WIC for a year as long as they continue to breastfeed, and children ages 1-5 can be on WIC if the family qualifies. Women do not need to be Native to use the Cherokee Nation WIC office, since the program is nationwide through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and parties can also apply through the health department. Information about breastfeeding is available at all WIC offices.

Those who do not qualify for WIC or programs available to low-income mothers can still receive information from nurses, local or online groups, and the Oklahoma Breastfeeding Hotline. Halpain said the information is science-based, whereas what can be found online may be more about personal experiences.

"The newer generation relies on a lot of online information. They have to be really careful that its not inaccurate information," said Halpain.

Learn more

For more information about breastfeeding, how to find a local lactation consultant, or how to become a recognized breastfeeding friendly worksite, visit the OSDH breastfeeding website, or call the Oklahoma Breastfeeding Hotline toll free at 1-877-271-MILK (6455).