Salinas Valley Memorial builds a breakthrough breastfeeding program.

Live Feed: Hungry to Help: Salinas Valley Memorial Nurse of the Year Shawna Helmuth (right of tall man, center) and friends have nearly doubled the statewide breastfeeding rate amongst mothers leaving SVMH.

The mom-to-be is adamant as she goes into labor. “I am not going to breastfeed—I refuse,” she said some 18 months ago at Salinas Valley Memorial.

Later, once offered literature on the benefits of breastfeeding, as well as support from hospital staff, the new mom decided to forego the baby formula and give breastfeeding a try—and, a year and a half later, is still at it with her toddler. She recently returned to the hospital to thank the one woman who made it all possible: Shawna Helmuth, 18-year maternity ward vet and co-chair of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (HMHB), a nonprofit program formed in 1999 to boost flagging breastfeeding rates throughout Monterey County.

“It was great to see,” says Helmuth. “I feel like we’ve come a long way [since 1999] and are really making a difference.” Such a difference, in fact, that Helmuth’s peers voted her SVMH’s Nurse of the Year for her tireless dedication and effort in making the program such a success.

“She very much deserved that title,” says Helmuth’s fellow co-chair Trina Ammar. “She has grown wonderfully as a true leader in maternal and child health in Monterey County.”

With Helmuth’s help, HMHB has boosted the rate of new mothers who leave SVMH breastfeeding exclusively to 75.8 percent, when the general rate in the state of California is closer to half that, at 40.5 percent, according to the California Health Department.

It’s an enormous accomplishment, says former co-chair Robbie Gonzalez-Dow, given just how beneficial breastfeeding is. Breastfeeding offers many advantages that are simply not available in commercially prepared formula, including decreased risk of juvenile-onset diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers, says Helmuth. The “bottle or breast” decision is certainly a very personal one, and both HMHB and Helmuth support new mothers equally, regardless of their decision: “Supporting all moms and babies is number one,” she says.

To ensure a successful start for those mothers who do choose the breastfeeding route, HMHB outfits each birthing suite with breastfeeding literature, and also sends a lactation nurse within an hour of the infant’s birth to assist with the first feeding. Helmuth also visits nearly every new mother before discharge to ensure that all difficulties have been ironed out and that nursing is running smoothly. She also passes out breastfeeding packets, which include contacts for support groups in the area, and the number to the hospital’s “warm line,” a hotline mothers can use for nursing-related questions. “They can call and ask, ‘Is this normal?’ or ‘How do I do this?’ and get an answer that same day,” says Helmuth.

These follow-up services remain crucial to long-term breastfeeding success. Since the typical hospital stay is less than 48 hours, many mothers encounter difficulties with the process days, weeks, or even months later. Indeed, half of mothers who leave the hospital breastfeeding quit doing so within six months, even though the American Association of Pediatrics recommends nursing for 12 months minimum. “Even something as simple as a phone call can help a woman stick with breastfeeding,” says Ammar.

HMHB also extends its efforts into the greater community to “[garner] support and promote breastfeeding,” says Helmuth. “Society acknowledges that it’s an important thing to do,” she says, “but many people still go, ‘Eww, gross!’ when they see a mother nursing a baby.” HMHB works to erase that common public perception with a traveling collection of positive breastfeeding photos, as well as an annual luncheon to recognize “businesses, organizations, or people for their support of breastfeeding,” says Gonzalez-Dow. Increasing public awareness is an important HMHB goal because, as Helmuth says, “our society isn’t very well-informed about breastfeeding versus bottle feeding. They aren’t the same.”

While HMHB has done much for nursing mothers and babies in Monterey County since its inception seven years ago, there is still much work to tackle, Helmuth says. Next year’s major project focuses on nursing teachers and alleviating the difficulties they encounter being a breastfeeding mother while handling a classroom full of students.

“There’s a lot of work involved,” says Ammar.

Former co-chair Gonzalez-Dow predicts that HMHB will meet even more success: “What we are going to start seeing are rates going up even more because of all these efforts, having a strategic plan, and having a common goal: to make breastfeeding the norm in Monterey County.”

It’s a tall order, but one that Helmuth and HMHB are ready to take on. “Salinas Valley Memorial has a great heart center and a great cancer center,” says Helmuth, “and we’ll have a great and equally important breastfeeding health center.”

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