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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.

All of their clients must take a breastfeeding class, Barrow said. It’s up to the mothers if they want to provide breast milk, formula or a combination of both.

“For moms who want to breastfeed, we are here to provide support. For those who don’t, we are here, too,” McCulloch said.

All WIC staff members receive extensive training in breastfeeding, Barrow said. From office assistants to the receptionist, everybody has extensive knowledge, she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, one peer counselor paced around her cubicle as she talked to a Spanish-speaking mom on the phone, assuring her that eating hot sauce or getting upset would not affect her milk supply.

“There are a lot of common misconceptions, especially culturally,” McCulloch said before stepping into a one-on-one consultation with Santa Rosa mom Diana Andrade, 22, who gave birth just a few days ago to her second child, Ayden Brito. The baby had tongue-tie and was having a hard time latching onto one of her breasts, Andrade said.

McCulloch, who helped the mom two years ago after her then-newborn daughter had problems latching on, planned to give her a hospital-grade breast pump to take home.

More than 200 pumps were purchased two years ago by the Sonoma County Breastfeeding Coalition, which McCulloch chairs, through a grant geared at encouraging breastfeeding for every baby born in the county, Barrow said. The pumps are sent to local hospitals, including Sutter and Santa Rosa Memorial, and handed out to clients who then return them to WIC locations so that they can be cleaned and recirculated, she said.

“It was so good for my daughter,” Andrade said about breast milk, which is supposed to boost a child’s IQ. “She’s really smart for her age. I think that helped.”

At the other end of the building, registered dietitian Laura Stever led a breastfeeding class for pregnant women, many of them who will be first-time mothers. She shared information on the benefits of breast milk while easing their worries about pain. “It’s not supposed to hurt,” she said.

Using a doll, Stever showed the women some of the best ways to hold a baby while feeding, including the cradle and football positions. Asking them to undress the dolls, she also taught them about the importance of skin-to-skin contact.

Earlier that day, Linda Katz-Krieger, another registered dietitian at the Santa Rosa WIC office, met five moms who recently gave birth. She taught them about paying attention to baby cues, especially when feeding them with a bottle. With breastfeeding, she said babies self-regulate, unlatching when they’re full. She said parents run a risk of overfeeding with bottles.

Like most moms in the room, Michelle Flores opted for breastfeeding exclusively.

“I thought it was the most natural,” said Flores, 23, of Santa Rosa. She also felt it was the best way to bond with her newborn, Alexander, who quietly fed as his mother met with one of the dietitians to sign up for WIC services. Although she decided early on she would breastfeed, Flores said she had a lot of concerns and questions, so she decided to take advantage of the breastfeeding class and peer counselors.

“It’s good knowing that there is a place where I can get info,” Flores said. “Otherwise, I would be blind-sided.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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