Going Baby-Friendly for World Breastfeeding Week


“Who is…” is a new StoryLine series that features and celebrates the many employees, physicians, volunteers and others who make up Eastern Health. These are the individuals who are part of the fabric of our organization and who contribute to making a difference in the community and to health care every day. We hope that you, our readers, enjoy learning about Eastern Health – who we are, what we do, and how and why we do it – as much as we enjoy telling you!

Who is… Heather Gates?

Heather Gates, BNRN, CCHN(C), IBCLC, is a provincial breastfeeding consultant and Chair of Baby-Friendly Council of NL, an interdisciplinary committee begun in 1992 with the aim of increasing the initiation and duration of breastfeeding in the province. This past March, Heather became a new addition to the Eastern Health team, working with Perinatal Program Newfoundland and Labrador, a province-wide Eastern Health program established in 1979 to improve the quality of reproductive care and pregnancy outcomes. She brings with her a wealth of professional clinical experience, having worked as a registered nurse for the past 13 years, and as a lactation consultant for the past 10.

Because October 1-7, 2019 is World Breastfeeding Week, we thought we’d catch up with Heather and find out about Baby-Friendly initiatives, World Breastfeeding Week itself, and why her work is so important.

Heather presenting at a Municipalities NL conference.

Heather Gates presenting at a Municipalities NL conference.

What does a typical day look like for you?

The best way to describe a workday for me is that it’s all about making connections supporting the vision of Baby-Friendly NL. The Council is made up of a very passionate group of professionals from government, health authorities and Memorial University – along with others – who all come together with the greater goal of improving breastfeeding rates within our province. The Council develops programs and campaigns that contribute to the an overall culture of breastfeeding; one where breastfeeding is viewed as a normal way to feed a child. This includes a great deal of telephone calls, video conferences and emails with partners and stakeholders across all of Newfoundland and Labrador as well as across Canada. As well, there are opportunities to present the Baby-Friendly message to public meetings with professionals, communities and businesses as we improve the culture of breastfeeding across all sectors of our province.

What types of breastfeeding programs/services does Eastern Health offer?

Along with individual support from knowledgeable health-care providers, Eastern Health offers prenatal breastfeeding classes, as well as mother-to-mother support groups in the community and breastfeeding clinics in hospital. Families need to know that they have support when they leave the hospital and how to access that support. We know this contributes to greater success in families reaching their breastfeeding goals.

You will also find that Baby-Friendly NL has various resources on our website that not only support the needs of our clients but also the partners in our communities. For example, we have resources for teachers as they introduce the topic of breastfeeding into school curriculum (it is very important that our children learn that breast milk is a normal food for babies). We have resources that support municipalities and businesses to help them become more breastfeeding friendly. We also have a popular resource for physicians called “The Physicians Toolkit” that has been adopted for use across North America.

Tell us a little more about the Baby-Friendly Initiative (BFI).

The Baby-Friendly Initiative is a program developed in 1991 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. Baby-Friendly assists hospitals and community services in giving all mothers and families the information, confidence and skills necessary to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies or to safely feed with formula if they have made an informed decision to do so. A Baby-Friendly hospital focuses on the needs of all newborns and helps mothers and families give their infant the best possible start in life.

Members of the research working group of Baby-Friendly Council of NL

Members of the research working group of Baby-Friendly Council of NL

What do these programs and services accomplish?

Decisions about infant feeding are influenced by the social and family environment of childbearing women. In Newfoundland and Labrador, we had a 35.3 per cent breastfeeding initiation rate in 1986. Therefore, many childbearing women have been influenced by a generation where breastfeeding was not popular. Normalizing breastfeeding for all age groups and ensuring new mothers have evidence-based facts about infant feeding is central to making an informed decision about how to feed your baby. The culture is shifting – in 2018, 71.9 per cent of women in NL chose to initiate breastfeeding, a choice usually made before or during pregnancy.

Support around breastfeeding extends far beyond what happens for the few days in the hospital after the baby is born. We know that those first few days at home can leave families in a very vulnerable position – the time frame between discharge from the hospital to the first contact made by your community health-care provider is a commonly known as a time when families will make a decision to begin supplementing or stop breastfeeding. It is very important that we do our best to bridge that gap. Families need to know that support is available and where to access that support. It is also important that at any point that families avail of services, that they are met with consistent and supportive messaging.

How does World Breastfeeding Week (Canada) fit in?

In Canada, World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated from October 1-7. Each year we adapt a theme developed by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action as we carry out our celebrations and promote programs of Baby-Friendly NL. 2019’s theme is “Empower Parents ־ Enable Breastfeeding.” This year’s logo features two adults and an infant with figures by their sides, reinforcing the importance of working together to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. Partnerships are needed to protect the mother-infant dyad and are essential in creating breastfeeding friendly communities.

World Breastfeeding Week 2019 logo

World Breastfeeding Week 2019 logo

What is Eastern Health doing to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week?

Baby-Friendly NL supports regional health authorities (RHA) in celebrating World Breastfeeding Week. This year’s events include partnerships with many municipalities who celebrate by officially proclaiming the first week of October as World Breastfeeding Week. Many RHAs also partner with family resource centres and municipalities to host a Quintessence Breastfeeding Challenge. This fun event is a challenge for which geographic area (province, state or territory) has the most breastfeeding babies, as a percentage of the birth rate, “latched on” on a selected day in the first week of October. Breastfeeding Support Groups may have a special location in their community this week, bringing local business into the celebration. Other locations may hold celebratory staff teas within their unit/facility or in their community.

What have been some highlights of your job to date?

Being able to use both my professional and personal experience in the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding on a provincial level has been a privilege and is truly rewarding. Though I am still new to this role, I look forward to the team’s endeavours and where we can take the work of Baby-Friendly NL. This week I will be travelling to the National Baby Friendly Initiative Symposium in Yellowknife, NWT. I will represent our province and, together with a colleague, will be participating in a panel discussion there. I am excited and cannot wait to share our experiences and make connections with like-minded people across the country.

Why is the work you do important?

Baby-Friendly is a continuous, quality improvement strategy that changes the way we care for mothers, infants and their families. It’s an investment in our most precious resource: our children. Being Baby-Friendly is the responsibility of everyone within the health-care system, whether you are an administrator, a front line health-care provider or in a supportive ancillary staff role. Everyone has a part to play – even if you do not ever come in contact with a mom and a baby, your role can have a lasting impact! Everyone should know that a baby can be fed anywhere, anytime. An encouraging smile or offering a glass of water to a breastfeeding mother goes a long way to create a supportive environment. Some women wish to feed in a private area for their privacy or so that their baby can nurse distracted, so people should know where in their workplace, businesses or communities there is a quiet and comfortable area for feeding.

BFI encourages families to have a voice and allows them to be involved in decision making around their care. Informed choice is very much a cornerstone of baby-friendly. Information is power and we need more families feeling empowered when it comes to their care and infant feeding choices. ■

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