Meet The Breastfeeding Support Workers Who Provide In-Home Help To Moms Who Need It Most

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Without adequate knowledge and support, research shows that expecting mothers often give up on breastfeeding. Many new moms are forced to turn to bottle-feeding, even if they want to breastfeed, because of their difficult situations. But New York has found one pretty genius solution. Healthy Families New York, a home-visiting program for new parents, is providing the help that at-risk mothers need to successfully and happily breastfeed, and it sets an example for the rest of the country, where too many mothers are forced to stop breastfeeding because they lack support.

A recent study out of the University at Albany found that Family Support Workers (FSW) provided through Healthy Families New York (HFNY) increase breastfeeding rates among new mothers, particularly those who are likely to not breastfeed. Analyzing more than 3,500 mothers who have been assisted by the program, researchers found that home visits during and after pregnancy increase the likelihood of breastfeeding, especially for those who may be leaning towards not doing so because of disparities such as ethnicity, education, and income.

There are 35 divisions of HFNY dispersed throughout the state, everywhere from New York City to Upstate. During pregnancy, support workers visit mothers bi-weekly, offering assistance with anything that may be affecting them such as job training, ESL classes, legal services, GED preparation classes, healthcare and, of course, breastfeeding preparation. Upon birth, visits are increased to each week, all free of charge.

“We do a lot of talking about breastfeeding with the mothers and provide them with handouts and DVDs and we go over these resources with them,” says Crystal Bass, a family support worker in Herkimer County, New York. “[The DVD] we have is actually showing them breastfeeding—they’re watching mothers breastfeed, and this seems to be very helpful.”

February will mark Bass’ 10th year anniversary as a support worker, having joined the program when it first came to Herkimer County. “We didn’t know anything about the program at first, but the more we learned about it, the more excited we became,” Bass says. “It was so exciting to know that we were going to be able to go in and help people, and one of the first things I said was ‘Wow, I wish this program was around when I had my kids. It would have been so beneficial.’”

Sandra McGinnis, senior research scientist at UAlbany’s Center for Human Services Resources, who worked on the study, tells Romper she looked at the tactics being used by the support workers in HFNY and how and why they were affecting breastfeeding outcomes statewide. “I was tasked to look at where the trends were going in breastfeeding...and I started looking at the things that were associated with greater rates of breastfeeding, and that analysis is what turned into the research paper.”

While Bass and her fellow support workers assist in a wide array of ways, parent-child interaction is a major focus, something that is accomplishable through breastfeeding. By openly discussing breastfeeding and answering all questions with resources and educational material, mothers feel completely comfortable with their support worker and are willing to give breastfeeding a try, even if it doesn’t seem like a great fit. “I’ve had a few moms who didn’t want to breastfeed at the beginning and then the more we talked about it, they gave it a try. I always tell them that the worst thing that can happen is that it’s not working for you and then you don’t continue,” Bass says.

Samantha Keener, a new mother in Herkimer County, has a 16-week old newborn and says she is so thankful for the breastfeeding support that HFNY and her support worker provided. Keener knew she wanted to breastfeed from the beginning of her pregnancy, but had many concerns.

Samantha Keener and her son. Image courtesy of Samantha Keener.

“I like to know all aspects of something before I jump into it,” Keener explains. “Even before I got pregnant, I knew the benefits of breastfeeding, but I didn’t know how it would work with myself because there are a few medications that I do have to take and it was a concern of whether or not it would impact my breast milk, if it would affect the baby or if I would even be able to breastfeed if I had to get back on [the medication] right away.”

Each in-home visit answered any question Keener had directly from research or first-hand experience of the support worker, like Bass, who are mothers themselves. “They offered amazing support right from the beginning.”

Shannon Doran of Sullivan County felt the same way. “I’ve been breastfeeding for two years now and I don’t think I would have made it this far if I just had family supporting me because the family workers encourage you to do it for the long haul because of the healthy relationship and bond you form with your child,” says Doran.

Upon discovering she was pregnant, Doran realized she had a lot to prepare over the following nine months. Having had to drop out of high school due to a family member’s sickness, the support worker helped Doran obtain her GED and become a Certified Nursing Assistant. When it came to breastfeeding, Doran was concerned about finding enough time to feed her son while at work.

Shannon Doran and her son. Image courtesy of Shannon Doran.

“During the pregnancy, they definitely outlined how you should have everything set up before you go from having no baby to having a child. They made sure I was ready to pump as soon as I got home from the hospital, to make sure that my supply was always good and that I had back-up in the house in case anything happened. They were great about making sure I understood the basics of how long milk would last in certain places, such as in a deep freezer instead of a regular freezer.”

When Doran found that her son had a tongue tie, she was still determined to breastfeed and her support worker helped her find the right way to do so.

The tongue tie “makes it harder for them to breastfeed because they don't suck the right way, so that was very difficult,” Doran says. “But the support workers made sure that I felt I was part of the community and that other mothers had gone through the same thing, and they gave me great advice on how to handle it so that I could still breastfeed.”

Having a close confidant to express all concerns with has helped Doran to become completely open about the struggles of breastfeeding and to feel comfortable feeding her son in public, despite what others might say.

“I was very open about breastfeeding, and the family support workers definitely made me feel like it’s a comfortable thing and that the people shouldn’t judge you for making that choice. A lot of people are like ‘you shouldn’t do it in public’ or ‘you should do it in the bathroom,’ and it shouldn’t be that way at all. I don’t think you should be judged for feeding your kid because those same people are the ones who would be judging you for having a screaming toddler or infant.”

Keener and her son. Image courtesy of Samantha Keener.

In all, both Doran and Keener said they've had positive experiences being assisted and educated by the support workers throughout and after their pregnancies. HFNY made this difficult and occasionally daunting journey much simpler for them, and for that, they are incredibly grateful.

“Overall,” Keener says, “Healthy Families has been a wonderful resource to have just because, being a new mother, there are a lot of concerns, but they provided so much information that I felt even more secure making the decisions that I did because I had that research and support.”

For more information about Healthy Families New York, visit www.healthyfamiliesnewyork.org.

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