For five years, Missoula County health officials have been trying to increase the number of women who breast-feed their babies.
Now they have a study that proves the efforts have been worthwhile. In fact, the study, produced by a graduate school intern, shows breast-feeding numbers for babies born at Community Medical Center far above national averages.
“We’ve never had really good numbers, but they were probably fairly average for our region,” said Mary Pittaway of the Missoula City-County Health Department. “Now, however, because of work we’ve done with the hospital, we’ve got solid numbers that put us near the top. We really just can’t believe it.”
The study by Julie Garon, a graduate student in public health at Tulane University, focused on Community and looked not just at numbers of mothers breast-feeding, but also cataloged and analyzed the hospital’s procedures in terms of how they promoted breast-feeding.
“Essentially we at the Health Department have been at odds with the maternity hospital in terms of breast-feeding,” Pittaway said. “We want them to promote breast-feeding because it’s better for the health of the child and mother. They’re not against that, but they also want to do what the patient wants.”
Sometimes that means babies wind up on formula, which is conveniently provided to hospitals by formula companies.
“It’s in their interest to promote their product, so they give it to the hospitals, which then pass it on to new moms,” Pittaway said. “It’s all packaged up nicely for the mom, but the bad thing about that is that once babies are on formula, everything changes.”
The upsides of breast-feeding are well documented. The Health Department website lists the following advantages:
- Breast milk is inexpensive and convenient, and uniquely tailored to meet all of a baby’s nutritional needs for the first six months of life.
- Breast milk contains antibodies from the mother that can protect infants from infection.
- Breast milk helps boost the baby’s own immune system.
- Babies who are breast-fed have less frequent diarrhea, and have fewer ear or respiratory infections.
- Babies who are breast-fed are less likely to develop asthma or diabetes.
Exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life has also been associated with higher IQ scores.
Pittaway said breast-fed children are also less prone to obesity, another of the department’s pet projects.
“What it comes down to is that we wanted the hospital to be more affirmative and accountable in promoting breast-feeding,” said Pittaway.
The department found a friend in Jon Weisul, Community’s chief medical officer.
“He has really embraced this, and what this study documents is a major change for the better,” Pittaway said.
Weisul, who came to Community two years ago, said the hospital is committed to advocating for breast-feeding.
“If the infant can tolerate breast-feeding, we promote that,” said Weisul. “We were very happy to see the results of this joint study.”
Weisul said the hospital has “definitely stepped up efforts related to breast-feeding” during his tenure there.
“It’s something we believe in and it’s better for the health and wellness of the infant,” Weisul said.
The formula conundrum was one problem, but there were others.
Often, for instance, children are taken away from their moms for a brief series of tests after birth. Statistics show that babies who stay with mom, with skin-to-skin contact, are more likely to breast-feed and to start that feeding earlier.
“For instance, they often wrap babies up and then do the heel-stick test,” said Pittaway. “It’s a small thing, but that time away is important.”
Addressing those issues has produced breast-feeding rates that Pittaway said will likely make other hospitals and communities jealous.
Generally, breast-feeding is assessed in a couple of different ways. Researchers look at the rate at which breast-feeding is initiated, the rate at which it continues as the mother and baby leave the hospital. and the rate of exclusive breast-feeding.
Nationally, the initiation rate is about 70 percent. In a sample of 300 births at Community, the number was 94 percent.
“We also had 84 percent breast-feeding when they left the hospital,” said Pittaway. “That’s an excellent number that really was really just jaw-dropping for us.”
While the numbers impress both Pittaway and Weisul, they think more can be done.
“We are higher than average for the rest of the country, and much, much higher than the expectations of the World Health Organization,” said Weisul. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to improve on our efforts, though. We’re committed to that.”
Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at email@example.com.