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Doctors, nurses, public health professionals and policymakers Wednesday launched a broad two-year program to encourage breastfeeding for every baby born in Sonoma County, an effort they say will yield long-term results in health, education and the "economic security of our community."

The collaboration, which includes all five hospitals with birthing services, is the result of a $3.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of 40 such grants nationwide.

The "Investing in Healthy Babies" program leverages work already begun at local hospitals to encourage mother-baby bonding immediately post-birth and to increase breastfeeding rates for the first year of a baby's life.

Giving birth is "possibly the most powerful thing a woman can do," said Dr. Stacey Kerr, director of the Sonoma County Breastfeeding Coalition.

"And possibly the most important decision," she said, is to breastfeed. "The most efficient, economical, nutritious, safest way to nourish a baby is the perfect food – breast milk."

Overwhelming evidence shows breast milk provides the best nutrition for infants and that breastfeeding offers significant long-term health benefits for both infants and mothers, health officials said. Breastfed babies are better-protected against allergies, asthma, diabetes, cancer, ear infections, tooth decay, sudden-infant death syndrome and obesity than those fed with formula.

Studies also show that breastfeeding helps women return to their pre-pregnancy weight and reduces the risk of premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.

Statewide breastfeeding numbers released Wednesday show that in 2012, Sonoma County outpaced the state average for babies who were breastfed to some extent at the hospital and babies that were exclusively breastfed.

At the five Sonoma County hospitals with delivery services – Sutter Hospital, Kaiser Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Sonoma Valley Hospital and Petaluma Valley Hospital – 97.5 percent of the 4,579 babies born were breastfed to some extent while at the hospital. That compares to the state average of 92.2 percent.

For babies who were exclusively breastfed, the county fared far better than the state: 83 percent versus 62.4 percent statewide, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Both of those local figures are higher than in 2011.

"We still have 20 percent to go, but we're making progress," said Dr. Lynn Silver Chalfin, Sonoma County's Health Officer. She said the collaboration among the five hospitals will lead to "a national benchmark of quality and support for a healthy start in life."

But the numbers also show breastfeeding plummets after three months: Fewer than half of Sonoma County infants are solely breastfed, well below the goal of 61 percent at 6 months.

To increase breastfeeding, the Investing in Healthy Babies program provides 10 steps for hospitals to implement, including creating breastfeeding policies, training all health care staff, educating pregnant women, promoting skin-to-skin contact and rooming together at the hospital, and establishing and referring breastfeeding support to new moms.

Kristi Lozinto of Petaluma breastfed her oldest son, Brandon, now 3, and is currently doing the same for her younger son, Jackson, who is approaching 5 months old.

"It's totally an amazing experience," said Lozinto, 31. "Even through the hard times, it's still worth it to see them grow off what I give to them."

Lozinto cited Brandon's relatively illness-free childhood as well as her own reduced risk for cancer as benefits.

Santa Rosa mom Brooke Pino Liggett, who is Lozinto's coworker and peer counselor with the Sonoma County Indian Health Project, said posters reading "Breast is best" encouraged her desire to breastfeed her newborn son, Finnegan, who is now 3.

"I liked the idea of giving the best to my child," she said — even better since it's free. When she had questions or concerns, she received help from a breastfeeding peer counselor. Now a counselor herself, she hopes to become a lactation consultant to assist other women.

"She's been very helpful," Lozinto said of Liggett.

"It's not just you and the babies," Lozinto said. "It's the moms and their babies. It's one big community."

(Staff Writer Brett Wilkison contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)