Efforts by Rosalie Girard's Berkshire Nursing Families has raised breastfeeding rates for new mothers at North Adams Regional Hospital from 50 to 87 percent.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A generation or more of women weaned on bottles are finding benefits in breast-feeding their own broods.
Breast milk is recommended by the World Health Organization as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics as the ideal food for infants for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health.
But by the early 1970s, fewer than 25 percent of American women were breast-feeding. That number has tripled in the succeeding decades, and in 2013, the percent of women who began breast-feeding their babies was a high of 77 percent, nearly on par with that of a century ago.
In the Berkshires, North Adams Regional Hospital offers childbirth classes and breast-feeding classes to expectant mothers. Rosalie Girard, an international board certified lactation consultant, introduced the breast-feeding program at the hospital in 1998.
"I could have set up a private practice — clients paying a fee — but I didn't feel comfortable just taking clients who could pay for my services," said Girard. "And I found that all kinds of women — even those who had the means, waited to consult with me until their situation was really bad — everything was an emergency or crisis. I felt women had to come sooner.
"One year, I figured out what had to happen."
Girard met with pediatricians and obstetricians at North Adams Regional and proposed that breast-feeding classes be combined with childbirth classes already offered to women who were to deliver at the hospital.
"In addition to breast-feeding classes, I introduced a comprehensive lactation support program, including hospital and home lactation consultations, a breast-feeding support line, and a Berkshire Nursing Families-initiated call program," said Girard, executive director of Berkshire Nursing Families, a nonprofit organization serving families throughout North and Central Berkshire.
In the 15 years since the breast-feeding program was put in place, there has been a significant rise in the rate of mothers who choose to breast-feed. In 1997, 50 percent of the total number of women in the hospital's childbirth center breastfed their infants and now that rate has increased to 87 percent.
Breast-feeding can provide a protective effect against respiratory illnesses, ear infections, gastrointestinal diseases, and allergies including asthma, eczema and atopic dermatitis. And the rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is reduced by more than a third in breastfed babies, according to statements issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Thirty percent of births at NARH are from teens to 23-year-olds, but that age group was not attending childbirth and breast-feeding classes.
"In 2009, we started a teen-to-23 playgroup program," said Girard. "We have a youth counselor to host and teach, and moms and dads with children come for about a half-hour so the pregnant families can hang out with young families."
The playgroup offers access to a pediatric scale that can show exactly how much a baby is taking when nursing. The scale cost $1,300, Girard said, and shows if a baby has ingested as little as what would be the "size of a blueberry."
Girard remembers a mother-to-be who was put off by the idea of breastfeeding but her attitude changed the more she participated in the group.
"She said, 'Breast-feeding is nice. I think I'll breast-feed my baby,'" Girard recalled.
Newborns usually are positioned at their mother's breast to nurse right after birth. If the mother wishes, Girard or another lactation consultant is present.
"Sometimes things don't go as smoothly as we would like. Babies don't latch on to the breast well or mothers are uneasy about the new experience," said Girard. "My object is to make them have a positive experience — to minimize anything that undermines it."
The 12th annual Team Trivia Night, a major fundraiser for the nonprofit, will be Saturday, March 1, at the Williams Inn. Prizes from 170 local businesses include gift certificates, getaways, passes, photography and more.
Consultants will continue to visit during the hospital stay to find out if help is needed.
"When the family leaves the hospital, they came come to us if they continue having breast-feeding difficulties," said Girard. It is routine for lactating consultants to call the families 3 and 6 months after they have gone home.
Now the hospital has an outpatient clinic, where mothers can come for advice, support and encouragement.
"They come when it is time to feed their babies," Girard said. "We work with families to figure out what a baby's needs are — if a baby is getting plenty of milk and is fussy, it could be acid reflux. When some babies lie down, they get reflux."
Brooke Mead, a first-time mother at 37, said she had done research and felt prepared.
"I had read books about childbirth and breast-feeding, and thought I knew everything I needed to know," said Mead. "I thought nursing would be easy, but I had a difficult birth and nursing was hard. They [lactation consultants] never judge you, they want to help you "
Since leaving the hospital, Mead has talked to Girard every week, and considers the consultant's support and encouragement invaluable.
One evening, a much older woman than Girard's clients approached her at the organization's major fundraiser, Team Trivia.
"She was emotional and teary eyed as she talked to me about her childbirth and breast-feeding experiences," Girard said. "It has happened with other women I happen to meet. We [lactation consultants] are part of families' experiences that are precious and unforgettable. I love my job."
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Rosalie Girard is on my list of heroes. We are so lucky to have her in our community.
Rosalie not only has significant expertise as a lactation consultant, she also is a master of creating alliances (with and BETWEEN pediatricians and other HCPs, administrators, and families). The fact that everyone adores and respects Rosalie is a major testament to her work.