APACHE COUNTY — Want to protect your darling baby from diabetes, ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, allergies, dermatitis, leukemia, lymphoma, sudden infant death syndrome, spinal meningitis and obesity?

Well, then – best think about breastfeeding for at least six months – preferably a year, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Many mothers have gotten the message after years of research and public health messages. Studies suggest about 82 percent of American mothers breast feed. But in Apache County, only about half of the 1,000 Apache County mothers who give birth this year will at least try to start breast feeding, according to Apache County Public Health Director Preston Raban.

The county has been trying to promote breastfeeding since the mid 1970s, when the county started the federally funded Women Infants and Children Program. Every year, the county works with some 600 people – 25 percent of them mothers, the rest infants and children. The Navajo Nation runs its own program, so the county’s program covers most of the areas south of I-40.

The efforts have paid off, with some 22 percent of mothers nursing their infants on average. The increase in the number of mothers nursing triggered an increase in the state/federal grant this year. 

In this age of high-tech medicine, breastfeeding remains the single biggest boost to the health of infants – with consequences that linger on into adulthood, including a much lower incidence of obesity, with all the health benefits that entails. In addition to the amazing array of health benefits, studies show breast feeding strengthens the bond between infant and mother, with a whole cascade of psychological and emotional benefits.

But here’s the kicker: Only about half of women will still be nursing in six months and only about 30 percent in 12 months, severely limiting the health benefits of breastfeeding, according to national statistics. Arizona generally ranks below the national average – which makes even Apache County’s rise to 22 percent a victory.

And that’s why the Apache County Board of Supervisors last week signed on for a $93,000 contract to continue its state/federal Women Infants and Children Special Supplemental Nutrition Program.

The county’s eager to sign up more mothers. “We’d love to get the word out that we are here to help, we have an excellent, trained and professional staff to help with their needs,” said Rabin.

Women interested in learning about the program and getting help with successful breast feeding can come into the county clinics in Round Valley or St. Johns or call the county health department. For more information, go to the county’s website at:  https://www.co.apache.az.us/let-us-help-you-find-us/public-health-service-locations/)

The program aims to keep women breastfeeding for as long as possible by providing counseling, nutrition advices, supplemental nutrition and perhaps most importantly – peer counselors. Research shows that one-on-one support from a woman who has successfully breastfed can significantly increase the success rate of first-time mothers.

Breast feeding poses all sorts of challenges, from chapped skin and pain to work schedules and the lack of a quiet place at work to breastfeed or pump milk. Peer counselors help women navigate the pitfalls of a practice that can provide enormous health benefits to their babies.  

The $93,000 federal grant comes through the state department of health services and will go mostly to pay the salaries of the director of the program locally, plus nutrition counselors, clerical staff, outreach and support for the peer counselors the county health department continues to recruit and train. 

The program will also promote the state’s Breastfeeding Hotline, intended to encourage women to breastfeed their babies for as long as possible. 

The program is open to pregnant women and mothers of infants in families with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty level. Apache County has the highest poverty rate in the state – about 36 percent of the population. That reflects the large share of the population living on the Navajo and Apache reservations. The poverty rate in neighboring Navajo County is 29 percent and statewide it’s about 18 percent.

The poverty rate for a three-person household is about $21,000 in Arizona. So a couple with a newborn infant with an income of some $40,000 could qualify for the counseling and extra help under the program.

National studies show that only about 70 percent of mothers in families below the poverty level attempt breastfeeding, despite the higher cost of relying on formula. By contrast, 90 percent of mothers in families making six times the poverty level at least start breastfeeding.

The program has set ambitious goals to increase the share of women who breastfeed and how long they continue. The grant stipulates the county will try to increase the number of women participating by 82 percent, while increasing the duration of breastfeeding in the first six months by 61 percent and in the first year by 34 percent.

Decades of research has demonstrated the astonishing range of benefits infants gain from breastfeeding.

Mother’s milk contains the perfect blend of proteins, sugar and fat babies need to develop. But it also provides the perfect mix to start the baby’s population of gut bacteria, which provides lifetime benefits. 

The breast milk also trains and strengthens the baby’s immune system, which could account for the tremendous diversity of health benefits for the infant. In addition, exposure to baby formula at such an early age could set infants up for allergies while the breast milk trains the baby’s immune system not to over react.

As the federal Centers for Disease Control concluded, “Transfer of the human milk antibodies and other immunologic substances may also explain why children who breastfeed for more than six months are less likely to develop childhood acute leukemia and lymphoma than those who receive formula. In addition, studies have demonstrated a 36 percent reduction (some studies show this reduction to be as high as 50 percent) in risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) among babies who breastfeed compared to those who did not, though the reasons for this are not fully understood. Recent research even indicates that breastfed infants are less likely to be obese in adolescence and adulthood. They are also less vulnerable to developing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.”

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