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Breastfeeding Support

"The idea is to match nursing mothers with peer moms who understand the struggles that breastfeeding mothers go through."

WIC Peer Counseling Breastfeeding Program 

The counselor could hear the panic in the young mother's voice. The mother was overwhelmed. She was nervous; she was tired; she was afraid her baby wasn't getting enough to eat. She was on the verge of returning to work, and didn't know how to coordinate her work schedule with her baby's feedings. The counselor could tell she was just about to give up on breastfeeding.

Instead, "Why don't you come in, and we'll see how the baby's doing?" the counselor suggested. The young mother soon arrived at Skagit Community Action with her baby in tow. The counselor listened to the young mother's concerns. Was she breastfeeding correctly?  Was the baby getting enough milk?   
 The counselor observed the baby, noting that it was growing beautifully. She watched the interaction between mother and baby, noticing that the baby was happy and content. Eventually, she watched the mother nurse the baby. The counselor reassured the mother that she was doing fine, and reminded her that her body knew how much milk to produce.
The counselor and the mother discussed strategies for pumping at work, and the counselor made sure the mother had a breast pump.  The young mother, relieved and reassured, reaffirmed her decision to breastfeed her baby.

New Breastfeeding Program
Similar stories were shared by two peer counselors in Skagit Community Action's new WIC Peer Breastfeeding program.  Five peer counselors were hired in March, and after intensive training, the program kicked off in mid-April. "The idea is to match nursing mothers with peer moms who understand the struggles that breastfeeding mothers go through," explains Wende Dolstad, WIC Manager and Coordinator for Skagit Community Action.  "Breastfeeding can be a tough thing to get going. Moms and babies have to learn how to breastfeed - nobody's born knowing how to do it. We're here to support, answer questions, and guide them along.

“It's a really good program. A lot of moms need that support. They may be getting mixed messages from their families, significant others and formula manufacturers about what's best for the baby. Maybe their families aren't supportive, or their significant other isn't in the picture. Maybe they're shy, or they don't have anyone to talk to. You build that relationship during the pregnancy.”

“The program is completely voluntary. We offer it to women when they come in to access other WIC services, but it's completely up to the moms whether they want to participate or not. All of our counselors are also WIC clients, and all have to have exclusively breastfed their own babies for at least six months. When hiring, I looked for women who were good listeners, who were friendly, and who were genuinely enthusiastic about breastfeeding."

"I have twenty clients of various ages and stages of pregnancy and nursing," says Peer Counselor Guadalupe Plascencia. "We talk to moms and meet with pregnant women. We educate them and answer questions about breastfeeding. We start meeting with them during their last trimester, contact them before they give birth to see if they have any questions, ask them how's it going. Our job is to be there for them and support them. Even with experienced moms, they can use the support, because each baby is different."

Building Relationships
"We start building the relationships before the women give birth, because once the baby comes, it can be overwhelming," adds Counselor Lara Sjogren. "You're sent home from the hospital when the baby is one or two days old, just when the milk starts coming in. It's not easy. You're tired; you just gave birth to a baby! The baby is tired and fussy, and you're not sure what you're doing. There's no visual to show how much milk the baby is getting, so you don't know if it's getting enough. You're afraid the baby is going to starve. It's so tempting to just give up and use formula, even though it's not as good for the baby."

"Breast milk is so much healthier for the babies than formula," states Dolstad. "There are risks with formula - it's not necessarily a neutral food. Breast milk has hormones and antibodies that protect the babies. Formula doesn't have these, but it does have a lot of proteins that the babies have trouble digesting. Breast milk is a live substance. It's constantly changing and evolving, sometimes even during a feeding, depending on what the baby needs.

"I often refer to breastfeeding as a 'two-person dance.' The mother's body knows what it needs to produce. Ladies get nervous because they can't see how much milk they've given the baby, but nature has it all figured out. The baby nurses, the mom's brain sends signals for the body to produce more milk, and the baby eats more. It's just another cycle, but it involves another person.

"But lots of moms aren't comfortable doing it. That's where the peer counselors come in."

Offering Support and Encouragement
"We want the moms to be comfortable with us before the baby comes so they're not afraid to call us. We have office hours one day a week, but we do a lot of work from home," says Sjogren, who mentors 30 clients. "Each of us has a cell phone so that the moms can call us even when we're not in the office - chances are that crises are going to happen when we're not in the office. We're supposed to return calls within 12 hours, but I check my messages at least every three hours, because that time gap can make or break a mom's decision to stay committed to breastfeeding."

Plascencia understands this firsthand and draws from her own experience when working with clients.  "With my first daughter, I only breastfed for one month. I had no education. I was young, 17, and didn't want to deal with it. With my second baby, though, I breastfed for nine months. It was a bonding experience. When they reach for you, like 'That's my mom, she can give me what I need,' and knowing you're doing what's best for them, that's a really cool thing. I wanted to pass that on to other moms."

Sjogren, on the other hand, has always been "passionate" about breastfeeding. "I was always that crazy breastfeeding mom," she laughs. "It's really so important that moms know what the benefits are for the baby. Society pushes formula, but I want to reverse that!  I want to change people's perception and help them realize, 'Hey, it's just my baby eating.'"

Sjogren would also like to see workplaces become more accommodating toward nursing mothers. "Our society puts moms back to work way too soon. Women really have to be committed to keep breastfeeding. It's not always easy. There isn't always a time or a place for a woman to pump. But breastfed babies don't get sick as often, and the moms' depression levels are lower, which means the moms miss less work time. It's so mutually beneficial for moms, babies and employers. I'd really like to see this become the norm."

Both Plascencia and Sjogren love their jobs. "The best part is knowing you're doing something good, helping the moms go through it, helping them achieve their goal of breastfeeding," Plascencia says. "And, of course," she smiles, "the babies."
 "The more contact and education we can provide, the better, though you may not see results right away," adds Sjogren. "Some women do give up, but for others, the miracle happens. Maybe the first time, they only make it a few days, but then with the next baby, they're more willing to stick with it.   We've at least planted that seed.

"A lot of what we do is just reassuring them, mom-to-mom - 'At the end of the day, you're a good mommy. You're doing your best. We've all been through it.'  It can change their whole perspective just knowing they're doing it right.

"I love my job. I would recommend this program to anyone. It's all about change. We're making the world a better place, one breast-fed baby at a time.

"We're so lucky to have this program here in the Skagit Valley."

Breast Feeding Resources

Skagit Breastfeeding Resource List

Breast Pump Rental Program

WIC Breastfeeding Information

Healthy Mothers/Healthy Babies

La Leche League

Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington

National Women's Health Information Center Breastfeeding Helpline

FAQs about Breasteeding