PLATTSBURGH — Essex County WIC Program representatives Krista Berger and Susan Cutting went to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators and promote the WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program.
WIC, which stands for Women, Infants and Children, provides federal grants to states for vital nutritional and educational support for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age 5.
“We have a case load of about 700 right now, but it's anywhere between 700 and 900,” said Berger, who is the county's WIC coordinator.
“Fifty percent of all children born in Essex County receive the services in this country,” said Essex County Public Health Director Linda Beers.
PEER TO PEER
The Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program allows pregnant and nursing moms the chance to talk to other mothers who can share their experiences and give breastfeeding advice based on experiential knowledge.
Peer counselors such as Cutting, who is also a certified lactation consultant, are mothers who have breastfed a least one infant and received special training from WIC in how to facilitate breastfeeding support for new mothers.
“It's not a typical office-staff person,” Berger said.
“It's someone who can visit a woman in her home, talk to them after hours, on the weekend and even go out to hospitals and visit them if they like.”
Essex County was one of only five WIC departments in the country selected to represent its program in D.C. at the January meeting for the 116th U.S. Congress.
“They were invited there to educate these new members on the importance of breastfeeding and the real importance of this peer counseling,” Beers said.
“They were chosen to represent WIC. They're the only WIC Department in New York state to represent because of their high impact and their innovative approaches to this this program.”
Berger and Cutting met with the Rev. Douglas Greenaway, director and CEO of the National WIC Association, and stopped in at the offices of U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Congressional Reps Elise Stefanik (R-21st District), Anthony Brindisi (D-22nd District), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14th District) and Antonio Delgado (D-19th District).
There are many benefits for a mother and her breastfed infant.
“Mothers who breastfeed have lower risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, heart disease, stroke, Type II diabetes, postpartum depression,” Berger said.
“Breast milk contains antibodies and live white blood cells. It helps the baby fight against all kinds of infection. When you or your baby is sick, the number of cells in the breast milk increases.
"So, it's just so helpful all around. Even the very first milk, called colostrum, contains special proteins that coat the baby's intestinal tract, and it literally helps protect against harmful bacteria just right from the start.”
Breastfeeding lowers a baby's risk for all kinds of childhood illnesses, such as ear infections, respiratory infections and gastroenteritis.
“It was a privilege to represent all of New York state’s women who have made the choice to breastfeed their infants,” Cutting said in a press release.
“Everyone was incredibly supportive and on board for working toward increasing funding,” Berger said.
For the last decade, $90 million per year has been authorized for the Peer Counseling program, but only about $60 million dollars has reached states to fund this important endeavor, according to a press release.
Since the start of the Peer Counseling Program in Essex County, breastfeeding rates have increased from 55 to 81 percent.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
“One of the key takeaways from this is Krista did go to Washington, D.C., as a representative of New York state to advocate for more funding to be put in place for the Peer Counseling Program," Berger said. "From our data, for this county, we would say that peer counseling is so important."
What would more funding accomplish?
“I'm sure we would see breastfeeding duration (last) longer," she said, "less medical visits for infants, and I think lower chronic disease."
The state's second largest county by geographical size has no obstetricians or birthing hospitals.
The Peer Counseling Program provides needed support and fills a void.
“The OBGYNs in Plattsburgh and possibly Saranac Lake or Malone or Vermont will have someone to answer breastfeeding questions, but not in the way that the Peer Counseling Program addresses that,” Berger said.
“Like I said before, late at night, on the weekends.”
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For more information about the Essex County WIC and Peer Counseling programs, call the Essex County Health Department at 518-873-3500 or go to www.co.essex.ny.us/Health/wic