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Peninsula mothers promote lifelong benefits of breastfeeding

Anna Swanberg is a woman fighting for a cause she believes in strongly.

A breastfeeding advocate and organizer of the Sequim and Port Angeles La Leche League, Swanberg is teaming up with fellow mothers and friends Susan Baritelle, owner of Dungeness Kids Company, and Wendy Schroeder, a lactation consultant through Olympic Medical Center's New Family Services program, to ensure that every woman who gives birth at Olympic Medical Center leaves the hospital with a breastfeeding-friendly diaper bag - not a formula-friendly bag.

The threesome will deliver the first batch of diaper bags to the hospital's obstetrics ward on Dec. 31 so that the first baby born in 2009 will go home with a breastfeeding-friendly bag. Each bag includes literature on breastfeeding, hand-sewn burp cloths, a magnet with breastfeeding resource phone numbers, a diaper sample, hand sanitizer, a tea sample, diaper cream, nipple ointment, nursing pads and information pamphlets including one about how fathers can help with the breastfeeding process.

The group's intention, Swanberg said, is to eliminate the formula-friendly bags distributed by name brand infant formula companies such as Similac from Olympic Medical Center.

"If they are there, they will get handed out," Swanberg said. "There are some pretty major statistics on how influential those bags are. It's a very effective form of advertising."

According the Department of Health & Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2008 "Breastfeeding Report Card," 90.1 percent of babies born in Washington state are breastfed. But at 3 months of age, only 44.9 percent of babies are exclusively breastfed, a number that decreases to 21.3 percent by 6 months of age.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers breastfeed children as soon as possible after birth, usually within the first hour, and continue to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of a child's life. Breastfeeding is recommended for at least 12 months and thereafter for as long as mutually desired.

"Any amount of breast milk, whether it's one feeding at birth or for six months exclusively, every little bit helps," Swanberg said. "But a lot of people think that if they can't breastfeed exclusively, they might as well give it up all together."

Society, Swanberg said, plays a large part in a mother's decision to breastfeed and for how long. "We do not live in a breastfeeding-friendly society," she said bluntly, describing how fabric at fabric stores features baby bottles, that a bottle is the sign for changing tables in public places and that most toy baby dolls in stores come with toy bottles. "All those little signs add up," she observed.

Parents who plan to breastfeed may tend to give up and switch to formula when breastfeeding becomes difficult if they do not have the resources or education and are provided formula in bags upon discharge from the hospital, Swanberg said.

A study published in Pediatrics magazine in 1992 showed that mothers who received a breastfeeding-friendly bag exclusively breastfed for twice as long as mothers who received a bag containing a sample of formula.

Breastfeeding benefits, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, include fewer illnesses as an infant, good jaw development, positive early attachment between mother and child, and a sense of security. Some studies suggest that children who are exclusively breastfed have slightly higher IQs than children who are formula fed, but those findings aren't concrete.

Doctors agree that commercially prepared formula brands meet nutritional needs for infants and formula-feeding advocates promote formula as convenient and flexible.

With the help of community donors, Swanberg, Baritelle and Schroeder hope to continue providing Olympic Medical Center with breastfeeding-friendly bags through the end of 2009.

"The hospital hasn't formally agreed in writing but said that if we are able to make it through 2009, that they will hear us for funding in 2010," Swanberg said optimistically.

Angie Graff, director of obstetrics at Olympic Medical Center, is working to find partial funding for 2010. "We will see what happens," Graff said. "I hope to have just one bag and I want that to be a breastfeeding-friendly bag. Handing out formula bags implies that we as health care professionals endorse formula feeding. And while it's a woman's choice to feed formula and we support that decision, I want to be able to endorse breastfeeding."

Olympic Medical Center, according to Graff, has a 95-percent initial breastfeeding rate, higher than the state and national averages.

The hospital, Graff said, used to give breastfeeding-friendly bags to mothers who expressed an interest in breastfeeding but stopped after the group organizing the bags disbanded two years ago and the supply ran out.

Baritelle, who was attending a "You and Your New Baby" class at the hospital with her son, heard about the group losing funding and disbanding and said she was sad to hear that mothers wouldn't be receiving breastfeeding-friendly bags anymore. When she opened her children's store in Sequim last August, she knew it was time to do something, Baritelle said.

Schroeder said her main focus, as a representative of New Family Services, is to provide mothers with the information necessary to make an informed choice about whether to breastfeed or formula feed. "Obviously not everybody decides to breastfeed but if you choose to breastfeed, we want to be here to help," she said. "We feel strongly that breastfeeding is critical to the health of the baby, the mother and the community. We are not by any means 'breastfeeding Nazis,' we just want mothers to have accurate information to make good choices."

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