- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005


Jameca Benjamin was scared to even hold her premature baby, who weighed less than 2 pounds. Nurses began urging the teen mother to breast-feed, but she had never known a woman who had breast-fed a healthy baby, much less one hooked to machines in intensive care.

Breast milk is babies’ perfect food. It’s even more important for the most vulnerable babies, those weighing less than 3 pounds at birth.

Paula Meier, a nursing professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says low-income black women are most likely to have very low birth-weight babies, but less likely to have relatives or friends who can offer breast-feeding advice. Ms. Meier heads the hospital’s lactation program and recently published its techniques in a medical journal.

Now, specialists are targeting frightened mothers of the smallest preemies to try to change that — with strategies that range from free breast pumps to bringing breast-feeding “peer counselors” into the intensive-care unit (ICU) to train moms to nurse.

“This baby has all these tubes, and they’re so small. It’s scary,” says Miss Benjamin, who now is the first salaried ICU peer counselor at Rush, part of a study to see how well the training program works.

Such programs are a big change for neonatal intensive care, brought about because of research in the past few years proving that breast milk markedly lowers the chances of infection and of a life-threatening bowel inflammation in very low birth-weight babies.

At Rush, 97 percent of the smallest preemies are breast-fed for at least a while — far better than the national average for healthy babies — and 64 percent still receive some breast milk once they go home.

“We emphasize to the mothers how the milk is really a medication for their babies,” Ms. Meier says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breast-fed exclusively for the first six months. Breast-fed babies suffer fewer illnesses such as diarrhea, earaches and respiratory infections; their brains seem to develop faster; and they may be less likely to develop asthma and diabetes or become overweight later in life.

The government’s goal is to have half of mothers following that advice by 2010. Today, 70 percent of mothers initiate breast-feeding for the first weeks of life, but only 33 percent breast-feed for six months. Even fewer — just 22 percent — of black mothers do.

Miss Benjamin had her daughter, Jamia Johnson, at age 17, and says she would have opted for easier bottle-feeding had Rush nurses not declared breast milk best. Her experiences encouraged Sene Garrett, a bus driver, that she could make breast-feeding work, too.

“Jameca just kept on me … telling me, ‘Your baby needs everything from you,’” said Miss Garrett, of Sauk Village, Ill., who learned to discreetly pump while sitting alone on her bus. Last month, she brought 5-month-old Jamari home from the hospital, a healthy 6 pounds, five more than at birth.

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