Aware of the nutritional benefits of breast milk, Treytcy Deharo set her heart on breastfeeding her baby but faced difficulties weeks after Analy Nicole Reyna was born in late March. The baby was unable to fully extend her tongue because of an anomaly known as “tongue-tie” that restricts the muscular organ’s movement, making feedings difficult and painful for the mother.
The baby wasn’t eating much. She began to lose weight and Deharo worried she would have to give up breastfeeding for baby formula.
“I wanted the best for my daughter,” said Deharo, 21, of Sonoma. “(But) it was so painful. I couldn’t handle it.”
Before she could give up, a lactation expert and dietitians with a county program to help low-income mothers came to her aid.
Susie McCulloch, a certified lactation consultant in Santa Rosa, worked with the young mom to have the baby’s condition surgically corrected. She also provided one-on-one breastfeeding support, meeting with Deharo and the baby nearly two dozen times over the past three months.
“Breastfeeding problems have a solution. Formula is not that solution,” McCulloch said.
The program has made a significant impact in Sonoma County, where poor mothers breastfeed at rates far higher than similar women in other parts of the state.
Forty percent of infants age 1 or younger in the county-run Women, Infants and Children program are fed breastmilk exclusively, twice the statewide average, said Tracie Barrow, director of the county WIC program, which provides nutritional support for low-income families.
Barrow and her staff have been working for a nearly a decade to encourage more low-income moms to breastfeed exclusively, long before other WIC programs around the country started to push for it.
They have on staff three peer counselors, all mothers themselves. The women are tasked with checking in with expecting and new moms and make themselves available day, night and weekends to answer questions. They also dispel myths about breastfeeding, helping boost the rate of breastfed infants.
The county program received national recognition this week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which gave it the Loving Support Gold Premiere Award of Excellence. It’s one of five agencies to receive the award nationwide and the only one on the West Coast, Barrow said. As the largest of three WIC programs in the county, it serves about 8,000 low-income families at four locations — in Guerneville, Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Sonoma.
In 2007, only 25 percent of infants age 1 or younger in the county WIC program were exclusively breastfed. Changing mothers’ attitudes hasn’t been easy.
The lower a woman’s socio-economic status, the less likely she is to breastfeed, Barrow said.
“We still provide formula, but we’re doing everything we can to encourage breastfeeding,” Barrow said.
At the Santa Rosa office, pictures of local women breastfeeding hang in the hallways. A yellow sign is posted near the reception area that encourages moms to feel comfortable feeding there. It reads: “Breastfeeding babies and mothers are welcome here and we encourage you to breastfeed anywhere you wish.”
Pamphlets and posters also remind mothers of the numerous health benefits of breast milk. Breastfed babies are better protected against allergies, asthma, cancer, diabetes, ear infections, pneumonia, sudden-infant death syndrome and obesity than those given formula.
Breastfeeding also offers long-term benefits for the mothers, McCulloch said. It reduces their risk of postpartum depression, diabetes and ovarian and breast cancer. It also lowers the rate of heart disease, the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, McCulloch said.