I first met Ms. Alice Freeman, a little over a year ago, when we were introduced to each other by a mutual friend and colleague, RaShel Charles, MPH from the Institute of Women’s Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. I am a medical sociologist, who was fairly new to central Virginia, and RaShel thought it would be good for us to meet and possibly work together. Prior to coming to Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, I was part of a research team at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Rutgers University, my work examines health and well-being over the life course, much of which focuses, on maternal, reproductive and infant health. Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to work with many other researchers, practitioners, and community members who work tirelessly to develop and implement programs that seek to increase breastfeeding, decrease postpartum depression, and facilitate healthy environments conducive to raising happy and healthy babies and children. Alice Freeman and her work stand out above the rest. Alice’s program, Mommies, Bellies, Babies and Daddies – The ABCs of Breastfeeding is a holistic and comprehensive program which empowers and educates pregnant women (and the men and others in their lives), especially those who are economically disadvantaged, about the benefits of breastfeeding, and engages new and experienced mothers in “Sister Circles”, using peer-to-peer support, encouragement and education. The program developed by Alice Freeman and work done by her, Renada Lewis, and everyone at Healthy Hearts Plus II has been successful in encouraging new mothers, often young and economically marginalized to both breastfeed and stick with it, a feat in and among itself, but what is so remarkable, is everything else the program does, as it helps heal and empower new mothers, fathers, families and ultimately the community.
Breastfeeding is especially important to the health and well-being of both the mother and the child. Breastfeeding provides substantial health benefits for children and mothers and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, followed by continued breastfeeding for the first year, 1-3 and increasing the proportion of women who breastfeed, is an integral part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy People 2020 goals. The health benefits of breastfeeding are consequential, and include reduced infection rates, obesity, and postneonatal mortality among children, and a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer among mothers. 1, 2, 4 Each additional week of breastfeeding confers a benefit to both mother and child, 3 and breastfeeding is also cost efficient for families and communities. Pursuant to the CDC, the majority of new mothers (79%) initiate breastfeeding, however significant sociodemographic disparities exist. Women living at or below the federal poverty level (48%), those with low educational attainment (high school or less) (48%), young (age less than 20) (42%) and black women (42%) have relatively low 4-week breastfeeding rates. 5 Culturally sensitive interventions for breastfeeding, targeting groups with low breastfeeding rates have been demonstrated to increase breastfeeding for women 7, and this is exactly what the ABCs of Breastfeeding is and does, but it also does so much more.
The Mommies, Bellies, Babies and Daddies, ABCs of Breastfeeding curriculum is designed to not only to increase breastfeeding among at-risk mothers, it is designed to empower new/expectant mothers to Appreciate themselves, Bond with their babies; and become a better Caretaker of self and baby. The program, which uses a holistic life-skills approach, works with young women, especially those who are underserved, by providing hands-on training to ensure they become successful breastfeeding mothers. The program and associated curriculum promotes wellness through providing education and modeling healthy lifestyle practices and healthy eating choices, thereby giving babies and mothers a healthier start to parenting. The program is designed not only to work with mothers; it embraces the entire community, from friends, fathers to grandparents.
The ABCs of Breastfeeding curriculum is based on the understanding that women need to be empowered socially, psychologically and economically, and the curriculum includes topics such as: pre-natal and postpartum care, nutrition for mommy and baby, and the physical changes before, during, and after breastfeeding. It covers labor, deliver and creating a birthing plan. Specific to babies, it provides instruction and discussion on topics such as caring for your newborn, caring for a sick child, child safety, immunizations, and the stages of child development. It also helps women develop strategies for those times in which “nothing you do seem works”, transitioning from breastfeeding to solid folds, toilet training and choosing the right child care. In the section of the program entitled Personal Development, women learn about budgeting, linking to their future self through education, negotiation of health and medical services (such as your right to Medicaid Services), strategies for successful single parenting, birth control methods, and civic responsibilities. Knowing that fathers are very important to the lives of women and babies, Alice has carefully crafted discussion and education for and about fathers, such as preparing for fatherhood and caring form mommy. Like I said, the program is holistic!
What I think is one of the most important parts of the curriculum, however are covered in the sections where women learn about the “self as sacred” and “matters of the heart”. It is here that Mommies, Bellies, Babies and Daddies sets itself apart from other breastfeeding and maternal health programs. Through this program and curriculum, Alice Freeman touches the young women who participate in the Sister Circles, for she knows that no woman can be a full and complete mother until they are a full and complete woman. While I am an academic researcher and professor, I am, more importantly a mother, who was young and single when I became a mother. I understand firsthand the trials and tribulations of being a young, single mother; as I was one who needed to heal and care for myself before being able to do so for the five beautiful children that I am blessed with. On the day that I met Ms. Freeman, she invited me into the “sacred” space where the Sister Circles are held, the first thing I saw was a full length mirror. Tears immediately welled in my eyes, not because of sadness, but instead a result of a tidal wave of emotion that flowed over me, for it was at that point that I knew that this program “got it” in a way that many other programs do not. That all young women, mothers are beautiful and that oh so many of us need to heal and learn to love ourselves, so that we can be there for our babies, for each other and for ourselves. We need to see ourselves as sacred, as special and we need empowerment, especially in a world that puts up structural and emotional barriers for us to do so. This is so eloquently captured in the final section of the curriculum– Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. We all need to see ourselves as beautiful, worthy and sacred. By empowering mothers to do so, this program not only teaches the skills of breastfeeding and parenting, it teaches to skills of community. Something we all need more of.
Thank you Alice, Renada, and everyone at Healthy Hearts Plus II for developing this beautiful program.
–Susan Bodnar-Deren, Phd; Virginia Commonwealth University.