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Breastfeeding and making hospitals baby-friendly

Drs. Paula K. Schreck and Bobbi Philipp

This summer, St. John Hospital & Medical Center became Detroit's first baby-friendly hospital, an international designation by the World Health Organization and UNICEF for hospitals and birthing centers that promote breastfeeding.

The announcement didn't make a lot of headlines. But it should have.

Detroit has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. In 2012, Detroit's infant mortality rate — calculated by the number of babies who die before their first birthday — was 15 for every 1,000 live births. That's two and a half times the national average. And the rate is even higher for African-American babies.

This is what makes the news about Detroit's first baby-friendly hospital important. It's a real chance to improve infant mortality rates, especially when we know that increased breastfeeding by African-American women could cut the mortality rate for their infants in half.

Baby-friendly hospitals follow the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding promoted by WHO and UNICEF. These include promoting skin-to-skin contact between a mom and baby immediately after birth, ensuring moms and babies stay together 24 hours of the day, and training all healthcare providers to promote breastfeeding as the optimal first food for babies.

The need for hospitals to get behind breastfeeding is clear. Breastfeeding supports healthy brain development and protects babies against myriad illnesses like pneumonia, diarrhea and ear infections. It benefits moms by reducing their risk of ovarian and breast cancer, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

But here's what's most exciting: Breastfeeding is an equalizer. It's something that nearly every mom cbagan do, regardless of where she lives or her socioeconomic status. More baby-friendly hospitals should equal more healthy moms and babies.

Recently, more than 150 of Michigan's maternity care leaders gathered in Detroit and Grand Rapids for MotherBaby summits focused on providing optimal mother-baby care.

The big news to result was that 3 out of 85 hospitals that provide maternity care in Michigan are now baby-friendly certified — and many more are on the pathway to certification. All the maternity hospitals in Detroit and Grand Rapids now "ban the bags," a policy that bars the distribution of infant formula company-supplied gift bags to new moms. Research shows that the distribution of gift bags, even if they don't contain formula, lowers breastfeeding rates.

Nationally, 199 hospitals and birthing centers in 45 states and the District of Columbia are now baby-friendly certified. This is only 8 percent of U.S. hospitals compared to 100 percent of Sweden's hospitals, but it's a start.

Last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its latest breastfeeding report card. According to the report, nearly 80 percent of women tried breastfeeding in the hospital after giving birth. However, less than 20 percent were breastfeeding exclusively six months later, the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health organizations.

These numbers tell us that women want to breastfeed, but when faced with obstacles at home, in the community, at their workplace or even in hospitals, many are unable to keep going.

We can get behind our moms and babies. We can all do our part by making sure our workplaces have a breastfeeding policy in place. Or by standing up for moms who are subjected to stares, whispers or complaints when they feed their babies in public.

Dr. Paula Schreck is the medical director of St. John's Mother Nurture Project and the breastfeeding coordinator at St. John Providence Health System.

Dr. Bobbi Philipp is a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and a breastfeeding expert for the American Academy of Pediatrics.