Arkecia Bailey had never breastfed, nor did she plan on it. But when she gave birth to a 2-pound, 13-ounce girl 29 weeks into her pregnancy, Bailey reconsidered.
“I felt so guilty. ... I had never seen a baby that small,” Bailey recalls of seeing her daughter Alasia in the incubator. “Anything I could’ve done, I would have.” The Rush University Medical Center nurses urged Bailey, 25, to breastfeed. Alasia wouldn’t be strong enough at first to take milk from a breast, but Bailey could pump milk to bottle-feed Alasia.
Dr. Paula Meier, Rush’s director of clinical research and the lactation program, oversees the hospital’s Mothers’ Milk Club. The program is not a crusade against formula. Rather, it teaches mothers how to produce milk and the importance of doing it.
Before the milk club started eight years ago, only 17 percent of new mothers at Rush breastfed their babies. Now, 93 percent start breastfeeding within six months of giving birth, says Meier. Almost 40 percent of these nursing mothers had never planned to breastfeed.
While the program is open to all the hospital’s breastfeeding mothers, it specifically targets mothers such as Bailey with premature infants.
“For premature babies, [breastfeeding] is even more important. The breast provides what the placenta would have during the last trimester [of pregnancy],” says Meier.
With 11 nurses and several certified counselors, the milk club offers nursing mothers one-on-one and group lessons and complimentary use of hospital-grade breast pumps. Cub membership is free, so money for the pumps and refreshments is raised through donations and the sale of Meier’s research materials.
The club also provides free transportation to its weekly meetings, conducted in both English and Spanish.
Mothers learn from one another and other experts. Lisa Haney, 36, could produce only enough milk for half of the feeding for her son, who was born 16 weeks early, weighing 1 pound, 10 ounces. But she learned feeding Robby half breast milk and half formula still reduces his risk of infection by 50 percent.
Meier says giving newborns formula milk is preferable to no milk at all, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says breast milk has the right mixture of fat, water, sugar and protein for optimal infant growth and development. Breast milk also contains an enzyme that makes formula easier to digest as the babies get older.
“We emphasize how early milk is like medication,” Meier says. “It has higher amounts of antibodies that help fight infection and protect against illnesses premature babies are more likely to get. These babies don’t have the same ability to fight infection.”
Jameca Benjamin, 21, delivered a 1-pound, 15-ounce daughter in 2000. “My baby never got sick once until after her first birthday, which is unusual for a 25-week baby,” she says. “I went on to breastfeed her for a little over three years.”
Infants who weigh less than 3.3 pounds at birth are born disproportionately to low-income or African-American mothers—women who are among the least likely to breastfeed. And that racial disparity is even greater in Chicago, according to Meier.
“[Here,] 3.4 percent of African-American births versus 1.2 percent of Caucasian births are [very low birth weights],” Meier says.
Mothers’ Milk Club’s priority is to get mothers of very-low-birth-weight infants to give even the smallest amount of breast milk to their babies.
Before the nurses explained them to Bailey, she didn’t know about the benefits of breastfeeding. Other milk club members agreed they were confused by nonsupportive family attitudes toward breastfeeding and formula commercials. “All I knew was what my friends told me, and [they] had negative opinions of it,” Bailey says.
Haney’s mother associated pumping with bleeding nipples. “You have the older generation who don’t realize that today, [pumping] is a lot easier,” Haney says. “Unless you [get] educated, you are inundated by these commercials that say formula is just as good as mother’s milk.”
But it’s not, according to the National Women’s Health Information Center. And formula can cost up to $300 a month, compared to milk from a mother’s breast, which is free and sterile.
Mothers of premature babies often have to pump for every feeding. At the milk club, mothers can use the Symphony, a dual-electric pump with software that can design a sucking pattern for more efficient milk production.
“We try to fit the pumping pattern with the specific mom,” says Meier, who has researched how to make pumps feel more like a baby. “It is labor-intensive on our part, but it is how our program is different from others.”
Experts recommend mothers of very-low-birth-weight infants use a dual-electric pump at least eight times a day until their infants are strong enough to latch on and get their own milk from a breast, which doesn’t usually happen until the infant’s actual due date or later.
Dual-electric breast pumps cost up to $70 a month to rent—and more than $1,000 to buy. The club helps women find federally provided pumps and lets them borrow one from Rush until they locate one in their neighborhood.
Club member Jennifer James, 32, has used three different pumps to pump six times a day since 6-week-old Cole arrived 10 weeks early, weighing only 2 pounds, 4 ounces. Since the baby is being fed on her “liquid gold,” Cole has gained two pounds, James says.
“It’s a love-hate thing you have going on,” James says of breastfeeding. “There’s nothing positive about the way the pump feels, either physically or emotionally. But you love the fact that you can do something for your baby.”
For more information on the Mothers’ Milk Club, call (312) 942-4932.
Roben Kantor is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She wrote this story for the Medill News Service.