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Breast-feeding program attacks health disparities

By Judith ScherrDaily Planet staff
Thursday August 09, 2001

While last year’s study by the city’s Health Department uncovered shocking statistics on the disparities between the longevity and health of hill-dwelling whites compared to flatlands’ minorities, one Berkeley program has found what could be the key to turning those numbers around. 

The answer’s not in a complex biotechnical discovery. Rather, it’s old as mothers themselves – breast milk. 

Breast-fed babies benefit from the anti-bodies their moms pass on to them, said Dr. Vicki Alexander, who heads the Health Department’s Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Division. In an interview at Cedar-Rose Park, where a group of breast-feeding moms and public health staff gathered Tuesday, Alexander said breast-fed babies are healthier, not only in their infancy, but throughout life. “There is less asthma, fewer ear infections,” she said. 

“And they are more content,” chimed in Ido Weiss, standing nearby. Weiss is a mother of four, including 4-month old Noa, whom she is breast-feeding. 

The Tuesday picnic was sponsored by the city’s WIC program. Women, Infants and Children is a U.S. Department of Agriculture project that offers low-income pregnant and nursing mothers and their young children food vouchers as well as health education programs. 

Berkeley WIC has a unique project, funded last year by The California Endowment. Under the guidance of Ellen Sirbu, 35-year city employee, who has been at the helm of the WIC program since it came to Berkeley 26 years ago, a peer-counseling program has been put in place, pairing trained coaches, most of them former WIC recipients, with new moms. Over one year, counselors see more than 2,000 women, supporting them in person and by phone. Many are seen soon after giving birth at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. 

Many are educated even before they deliver their babies. 

Yvonne Dugue, expecting her first baby in the middle of next month, came to the picnic directly from one of WIC’s classes for expectant mothers. The class was especially important to Dugue, who said she wasn’t breast-fed herself and did not grow up around breast-feeding moms. At the class breast-feeding techniques were discussed, as well as some of the difficulties the new mothers would expect to encounter. Best of all, “There’s a lot of support,” Dugue said, 

Socorro Rodriguez stopped breast-feeding two-year-old Zaida just last month. Through interpreter Estela Aranda, Rodriguez talked about the breast infection she suffered during the first weeks of nursing. “I called WIC and someone came out (to help),” she said, her toddler in her arms. Another WIC mom said her coach even came over on a Sunday to help her overcome a problem. 

WIC lends its coaches’ experience and support and also equipment, such as breast pumps for working moms. Coaches are matched to new moms according to specific needs such as language, culture, number of children or whether the mom will be returning to work while breast-feeding. 

Even women who come from homes where breast-feeding was commonplace say they welcome the coaching and attention they get from their counselors. “It’s nice to have somebody interested,” said Ido Weiss, who is from Israel, where she said breast-feeding in public is well-accepted, except in the most traditional religious communities. 

Where to breast feed can be a delicate question. Paula Bryant, a peer counselor, former WIC mom and nursing mother, said the program encourages mothers to use a sling in which the baby can be carried and discretely breast-fed. She touts the El Cerrito Target Store, which she says has a comfortable private space for nursing moms. 

Bryant, who gave birth to her first child five years ago when she was 16, said she particularly likes working with young moms. “I needed all the help I could get,” she said of her adolescent motherhood. When they understand the benefits breast-feeding has for babies, young mothers will nurse their children, she says. 

Bryant, who is African American, said she has found reluctance in the black community to breast-feed. 

Perinatal Services Coordinator Margaret Thomas, also an African American, says that in the black community the notion of bottles and formula may be linked, in people’s minds, to affluent life-styles and that people may equate breast-feeding to poverty. “There’s not a lot of support for breast-feeding (in the African American community),” she said. 

Thomas added that “for the MTV crowd, breasts are seen as sexual objects.” 

Alexander says, with support for nursing mothers, there is definitely hope. Before the intensive peer counseling program began, some 15 percent of African American mothers in the WIC program nursed their new-borns. After one year of the program, the statistics improved to 24 percent. She expects the numbers will continue to grow. 

Mother-to-be Yvonne Dugue sums up the challenge: “It’s a real natural experience that takes effort and work.”