Women delivering babies at Petaluma Valley Hospital can expect extra encouragement to breastfeed their newborns. PVH, as part of the countywide MotherBaby Collaborative, has begun actively prioritizing breastfeeding education and support.

As a result, PVH has attained some of the state's highest in-hospital breastfeeding rates.

The MotherBaby Collaborative is a breastfeeding promotion group made up of Sonoma County's five hospitals where babies are delivered. It is funded through a federal Community Transformation Grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At $3.5 million, this grant is one of only 40 awarded nationwide.

The focus on breastfeeding comes from a discrepancy the hospital sees between research, which shows that breastfeeding is the healthiest option for babies, and reality, where just 41.4 percent of California mothers exclusively breastfeed three months over giving birth.

Hospital officials said babies fed breast milk have decreased risks of ear infections, pneumonia, and asthma, and are less likely to become obese and develop certain kinds of cancer. A mother's milk also contains antibodies, anti-viruses, anti-allergies, and anti-parasites that formula lacks.

While the countywide initiative was launched in late July, foundational work began at Petaluma Valley Hospital in 2010. Denise Lundquist, nurse manager at PVH, has long been a champion of breastfeeding. Perhaps as a result, PVH has progressed the farthest in the collaborative's goals. New data released on July 29 by the California Department of Public Health reports that 91.3 percent of mothers at PVH feed their newborns only breast milk during their post-delivery stay, the highest percentage in the county and fifth-highest in the state. County-wide, the percentage is 83.

To encourage breastfeeding, Petaluma Valley Hospital has established a breastfeeding policy, set up a "warm line" to answer breastfeeding questions, and created a breast pump rental program — one of only two in Sonoma County — aimed at working moms. The hospital is now in the process of providing extra training to staff concerning the breastfeeding policy. While they have limited access to the mothers after they have left the hospital, Lundquist says the staff fits breastfeeding education into pre-labor hospital tours and post-labor testing.

On delivery day at PVH, nurses offer additional help in the first six hours after birth. They automatically bring in a lactation consultant if the mother has had reconstructive breast surgery, a previous failure in breastfeeding, or if the baby is losing significant weight.

"That's one of the things that I really liked, that they put so much emphasis on breastfeeding," said Shelby Francoeur-Snow, who gave birth to her son Wyatt last week at Petaluma Valley Hospital. Although she is from Santa Rosa, Francoeur-Snow preferred PVH. Well-aware of the health and bonding benefits attributed to breastfeeding, having support in that area was important to her.

Even with the positive aspects, significant concerns about breastfeeding remain. Chief among these are pain and insufficient milk supply. Both, experts say, are problems that are often easily overcome with some extra education. "So many women have never seen someone breastfeed before," says Lundquist. "They don't know what it looks like or what it's supposed to feel like."

LeAnn James, a midwife at the Petaluma Health Center says that breastfeeding pain often subsides after about a week. If it doesn't, a positional adjustment may help. As for milk supply, breast milk takes about six weeks postpartum to come in fully. "A lot of the times people just feel insecure and they give bottles because they're worried," says James. Generally, the mother will make enough milk the whole time if left to her own devices but if a mother begins supplementing her baby's milk with formula, her own supply may naturally reduce.

The Petaluma Health Center, while not directly associated with the MotherBaby Collaborative, offers breastfeeding services that complement the hospital's. Pregnant patients receive three prenatal breastfeeding educations and can attend publicly available group classes or private classes, both led by a certified lactation consultant.

The MotherBaby Collaborative and the Petaluma Health Center always defer to the mother's preferences when it comes to feeding her baby. So if parents choose to formula-feed their child, their wishes will be respected — after one more attempt to make certain that they understand the benefits of breastfeeding.

(Contact Taylor Kubota at argus@arguscourier.com.)