BMC Helps to Spread Baby-Friendly Practices in the U.S. South and Beyond

Boston Medical Center is supporting infant health and nutrition in some of the most underserved areas of the United States. Founded five years ago, BMC’s Communities and Hospitals Advancing Maternity Practices (CHAMPS) is helping hospitals in the Southern U.S. achieve the WHO/UNICEF Baby-Friendly™ designation through practices such as skin-to-skin contact, rooming-in and breastfeeding support after birth.

CHAMPS is part of the Center for Health Equity, Education and Research (CHEER) at Boston Medical Center. As a leading maternity care research, teaching and advocacy center in the country, CHEER partners with U.S. and international health organizations and medical centers to improve care to underserved populations and promote health equity for all.

BMC is a long-time leader in Baby-Friendly practices. The hospital was the first in the state to receive a WHO/UNICEF Baby-Friendly™ Hospital designation in 1999. CHAMPS Director Anne Merewood, PhD, MPH, was there during the early days of the hospital’s work to promote breastfeeding and remembers feeling the desire to do more.

“After BMC became baby-friendly, I was doing a lot of breastfeeding research, but I hit a certain point where I thought, we don’t need to be doing research, we have so much evidence that breastfeeding has health benefits, we just need to take action to increase breastfeeding in places where it was needed most,” recalls Merewood.

The opportunity to expand BMC’s support to other hospitals arrived in 2014, thanks to a $2.125 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. CHAMPS targeted areas in Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana, where breastfeeding rates are among the lowest in the country. Over the next five years, CHAMPS recruited 38 hospitals to work toward baby-friendly policies including having babies room-in with their mothers, increasing skin-to-skin contact and building community supports to help mothers continue their breastfeeding journey outside the hospital.

The hard work has made a significant difference. Between 2014 and 2017, breastfeeding initiation at CHAMPS hospitals rose from 66 percent to 75 percent, and, among African Americans, from 43 percent to 63 percent. In 2014, Mississippi had no baby-friendly designated hospitals, and now in 2019 has 11, with 95 percent of all Mississippi birthing hospitals on the official baby-friendly pathway. CHAMPS received new funds in 2017 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Bower Foundation in Mississippi to continue the work, and funds in 2019 from the Bower Foundation to ensure sustainability of the project in Mississippi.

“We have a lot of support from the community, from hospital systems and from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi. They are seeing the health benefits for these infants as they grow. These are evidence-based practices that everyone can get behind,” remarks Merewood.

The CHAMPS team has also successfully promoted baby-friendly initiatives in Texas, Tennessee, New Jersey and within Indian Health Service as well as tribal and Alaska Native birthing facilities in Alaska, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Currently, CHEER is expanding its breastfeeding work internationally, and is focusing on refugee breastfeeding support which is desperately needed. “Poor sanitation and unsafe water supplies in refugee communities can be a source of massive infection for bottle-fed babies. In these communities, breastfeeding is a matter of life and death,” concludes Merewood.