Did you know that breastfeeding a newborn is recommended for at least six to 12 months? Have you heard that when a mother delivers her baby prematurely, she makes special, preterm breast milk?
Your typical new mom—or typical employee—isn't aware of these facts, a situation that lactation specialist Kim Barbas, BSN, RN, IBCLC, has been changing throughout Children's Hospital Boston for the past 10 years.
Barbas started at Children's in 1988 as a new graduate nurse in Cardiology, and after several years, took time off to have children. It was her experience struggling to breastfeed one of her babies that inspired her to go from a nurse to a nursing expert. "I had never even heard of a lactation consultant until I had trouble feeding my son," she says. "I worked with a specialist who was so wonderful; she called me every day and helped me so much. It opened my eyes as to how much we could help our families here at Children's."
So Barbas got certified as a lactation consultant and returned to Children's in 1998 to spearhead a fledgling lactation program. She delved into it with the devotion and passion she's still known for today, and sought out mothers of newly admitted newborns to educate them about breastfeeding. "Evidence of the benefits of breastfeeding is overwhelming," she says. "Research shows that breastfed babies get readmitted to the hospital less often for certain illnesses during their first year of life. And major health problems like asthma, allergies, certain childhood cancers and obesity all have higher rates in formula-fed babies." Research also suggests that the benefits for the baby are life-long, since breast milk may offer immunologic protection against chronic diseases through adulthood. Of course, some mothers are unable to breastfeed, and Barbas and encourages and supports them, too.
But nursing isn't always easy for new moms or their babies, so Barbas steps in to help prevent and manage breastfeeding problems. "It's especially difficult when the baby is sick and hospitalized," Barbas says. "We work one-on-one with moms to help them use breast pumps so they can maintain their milk supply while they are separated from their babies." Barbas also acts as a maternal figure herself, gently caring for the new moms. "These mothers need a lot of TLC," she says. "They often get lost in the shuffle since their child is the focus of care here."
Barbas also takes Children's employees under her wing, helping new mothers returning to work continue to breastfeed by giving them information about pumping, getting them access to equipment and offering them discounts on supplies. She also supports employees through one-on-one consultations and answers hundreds of employees' emailed questions each year about breastfeeding. Due to her vigilance, the hospital now has private lactation rooms for employees and families at 10 locations on the main campus, plus five offsite employee lactation rooms in Children's nearby buildings.
Over the years, the lactation program has grown to include a strong education component, too. Barbas regularly teaches about breastfeeding medically complex infants at nursing orientations, sessions for new residents and departmental meetings. She also runs a lactation clinic in the Children's Hospital Primary Care Center for moms who come in for well-baby visits.
Because of these accomplishments, Barbas was recently inducted into the Lactation Consultant Hall of Excellence, a peer recognition program. The award includes a $5,000 grant, which Barbas plans to use to increase the use of human donor milk and establish a milk depot at Children's. Milk depots facilitate donations from mothers who have excess breastmilk, or who have lost their babies, to a local milk bank, where it gets tested, processed and distributed to sick babies, premature infants, or other moms who can't nurse their babies due to low milk production, infections or health problems. "I'd like to see Children's make breast milk and donor milk the standard of care here," Barbas says. "We can improve patient outcomes by giving all our infants breastmilk and increase our quality of care even more."
Ten years ago, Barbas was the lactation program's only employee. That year, she helped 200 mothers of hospitalized patients. Last year, having grown the program to include three part-time lactation consultants, two per diem employees and two interns, her team helped 2,100 mothers. "To look at the past 10 years' worth of milestones and to have been here practically my whole career, it's gratifying to see that breastfeeding is now so supported and such a part of our philosophy," she says. "It's amazing to look around and say, 'Wow, we did all this!' But my goal is still to be unemployed because everyone is successfully breastfeeding."
To contact the Lactation Support Program,
call ext. 5-0005.