When Mary O'Dowd became state health commissioner last year, none of New Jersey's 54 hospitals with maternity units had been designated "baby friendly" -- fostering an optimal environment that encourages new moms to breastfeed.
O'Dowd became a champion of breastfeeding, awarding grants to hospitals to help them forge stronger breastfeeding initiatives, and speaking out on the issue.
Now, New Jersey is home to two baby-friendly hospitals, which leaves plenty of room for improvement. Further, the state lags the nation in exclusively feeding newborns breast milk, which is recommended by public health experts because it reduces the risk of infant mortality, obesity, diabetes, and respiratory and ear infections and lowers the mother's chances of breast and ovarian cancer.
In April, South Jersey Healthcare's hospital in Elmer, Salem County, became the first in the state to get the award from Baby Friendly USA, a nonprofit sponsored by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. This month Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell was named the second baby-friendly hospital in the state.
O'Dowd said New Jersey's breastfeeding rates "are not where they should be." At three months, 26.8 percent of New Jersey mothers are exclusively breastfeeding, compared with the national average of 35 percent. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants get breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life, with continued breastfeeding to 12 months as the child begins eat solid food.
Last summer O'Dowd awarded $10,000 grants to 10 hospitals to help them improve their breastfeeding efforts and said progress is being made. Every hospital may not win baby-friendly status "but you don't have to have the designation to do the job well. Every hospital has the opportunity to look at the best practices and pick one or two and improve on that."
O'Dowd acknowledged that not every mother chooses to breastfeed, and some have medical issues that prevents it. "All mothers are doing the very best they can to support the health of their child and it is a personal decision. Our job is to make sure that women who go into the hospital intending to breastfeed are given all the tools and resources they need to have a successful breastfeeding experience."
Marge Pollack, administrative director of women's and children's service at South Jersey Healthcare, said the key is to begin educating mothers during childbirth classes about the benefits of breast milk, then make sure mothers are encouraged to nurse while in the hospital and get support from the community of pediatricians and lactation coaches when they go home.
"Getting up in the middle of the night and breastfeeding is a lot easier than going to the refrigerator and getting a bottle and warming it up," said Pollack. And of course, breast milk is free while formula is another expense that a new family can avoid. "If you provide information early on about the benefits, many will choose breastfeeding."
Capital Health was among the hospitals that received a health department grant to work on breastfeeding. The baby-friendly award means that "we have been able to achieve a level of patient-centered care achieved by fewer than 134 hospitals in the United States," said Al Maghazehe, president of Capital Health.
In many cases, a mother may stop breastfeeding when she returns to work and is discouraged by the challenge of pumping breast milk on the job to maintain her milk supply. The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide nursing mothers with a reasonable break time and an area to pump breast milk.
O'Dowd speaks to employer groups about the public good and the economic benefits of encouraging working women to continue breastfeeding. Breastfeeding promotes better maternal and child health, so "they will have workers at work being effective employees instead of at home with children who are sick."
O'Dowd is leading by example. She gave birth to her first child, Patrick, last June, fed him only breast milk for six months and is continuing to nurse. O'Dowd's job takes her all over the state "and I have had to identify locations off site where I am doing public events where I can pump. Luckily I am around healthcare-oriented organizations, so it has not been difficult: I have been very well accommodated. I wish that all working women had the same support that I have."