By Dave Ranney
KHI News Service
WICHITA — Three years ago, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of hospitals’ efforts to encourage mothers to breastfeed their babies ranked Kansas 42st in the nation.
“We have a lot of room for improvement,” Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Dr. Robert Moser said Thursday, addressing a gathering of nearly 200 front-line physicians and nurses, public health officials nurses and health care advocates.
Thursday’s event, called the Kansas Health Summit on Breastfeeding, marked the start of a foundation-funded campaign aimed at improving the state’s breastfeeding rates, which, according to the CDC, are 40 percent at six months and 23 percent at 12 months after birth.
Only 11 percent of the state’s mothers are thought to be breastfeeding “exclusively” after six months. All three percentages are below the national average.
“We’re here to build a blueprint for how to change the culture in Kansas so that more moms and babies have the opportunity to breastfeed,” said Virginia Elliott, vice president for programs at the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, a co-sponsor of the event with the Kansas Health Foundation, which is the primary funder of the Kansas Health Institute, the parent organization of KHI News Service.
“We know (breastfeeding) is the healthy choice, but it’s just not the easy choice in this culture,” Elliott said. “Our breastfeeding rates show the barriers that moms and families are facing.”
These barriers, Elliott, Moser and others said, include:
• a long-standing underestimation of the health benefits associated with breastfeeding.
• a shortage of readily available breastfeeding counselors.
• hospital maternity wards that adhere to outdated care regimens.
• health insurance policies that are overly restrictive.
• easy access to formula.
• formula companies’ marketing campaigns.
• reluctance to breastfeed in public.
• unfriendly work environments.
“We have a lot of industry in McPherson, and it can be difficult for mothers to step off a 12-hour shift (production) line to go pump” breast milk, said Dr. Alicia Chennell, who has delivered 23 babies since moving to McPherson in mid-July.
“The health benefits of breastfeeding are extraordinary for mom and for baby,” Chennell said. “(Breastfed) babies will have fewer infections, fewer incidents of diabetes, less asthma, less obesity … and for moms there’s less cancer and less diabetes. It also helps with maternal weight loss after delivery, which is always fantastic, and the bond that breastfeeding builds between mom and baby is pretty fantastic too.”
The event’s keynote speaker, Dr. Todd Wolynn, a pediatrician and CEO at the National Breastfeeding Center in Pittsburgh, stressed the importance of helping business leaders recognize the economic benefits of breastfeeding. He noted that studies have shown that breastfeeding mothers are less likely to miss work due to having to stay home to care for a sick child.
“Dollars evoke change,” he said.
Wolynn also encouraged attendees to be ever-alert to formula companies’ marketing efforts. “I’m not here to demonize the industry,” he said. “But let’s remember: Every mother who isn’t breastfeeding is an industry client.”
Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger said the Affordable Care Act requires health insurers to cover breastfeeding supplies and access to counseling before and after delivery.
“The problem we have is that this is considered preventive care, but HHS hasn’t been very specific in defining what qualifies as preventive care,” she said “So the insurance companies may have polices that say where you have to buy – or rent – a breast pump, or tell you what brand, or require you to have a prescription. It’s not very standardized.”
During the morning’s question-and-answer sessions, three comments from audience members prompted brief applause. The comments called attention to:
• How KanCare companies’ policies undercut access to breastfeeding supports for low-income women.
• How OB/GYNs could – and should – do more to encourage breastfeeding.
• The success of a Wichita program geared toward young mothers who are still in high school.
Afterward, many in the audience toured the maternity unit at Wesley Medical Center, which is in the final stages of becoming the state’s first hospital to earn a “Baby Friendly” designation.