Healthy Children Project has gained yet another brilliant faculty member! Liz Westwater, MSM, CLC joined the team in May 2016.
Westwater’s maternal child health journey began at a family planning clinic where she volunteered right out of college.
“I felt very passionate about women’s health,” Westwater says.
She worked her way through the ranks at the clinic: volunteer to clerk to counselor to educator. From here, she moved on to working as a WIC program director. At this time, her focus shifted from a women’s health perspective to maternal child health; especially after reading Gabrielle Palmer’s The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business. Palmer’s book helped her to realize that breastfeeding is a feminist issue.
“I had always been an activist– boycotting Nestlé ,” Westwater beings. “I knew that what the formula industry was doing was pretty heinous, but it never dawned on me that breastfeeding could empower women.”
For over three decades, Westwater’s work has empowered women, families and communities alike.
In the mid 70s, she served refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia while working at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Boston.
“I feel so fortunate to have worked with these people,” she says. Westwater remembers the transformation from when they first arrived in the states as refugees, struggling with English to when they integrated into the community, opening restaurants and other businesses.
While working at WIC in the late 80s, she and Cindy Turner-Maffei, MA, ALC, IBCLC started a breastfeeding peer counseling program with grant money from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Westwater calls the peer counseling program a “ladder up” for WIC participants.
Today, some of the women Westwater and Turner-Maffei originally trained are still WIC peer counselors, turned grandmothers.
“It’s really cool because one of the things we see as a problem with moms who want to breastfeed is their mothers not having a full understanding of breastfeeding,” Westwater explains. It has been found that grandmothers have the power to influence breastfeeding success.
During her time working as the accreditation director of Baby-Friendly USA, Westwater worked on the Best Fed Beginnings project and Communities Putting Prevention to Work, two CDC funded grants to improve breastfeeding outcomes.
In a 2013 interview with Our Milky Way, Westwater said in regard to the growth of the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI): “These are really exciting times. For many, many years I’ve been involved in promoting breastfeeding and I never thought I’d see this day.”
Today, Westwater says she is most impressed by the amount of people who understand the importance of getting breastfeeding off to a good start.
“When I first started Baby-Friendly in 2005… the biggest struggle was rooming-in,” Westwater explains. “There were so many hospitals that just couldn’t move forward because they were unable to inform their staff and patients about the true importance of rooming-in.”
Toward the end of her work with Baby-Friendly, Westwater says she noticed that hospitals rarely failed to get rooming-in to work.
Westwater also notes that more and more, people understand the importance of skin to skin.
“People are beginning to realize that it can be done, and it should be done, and that families love it!” she says.
Westwater retells the story of a New Hampshire hospital that haphazardly encountered a huge spike in exclusive breastfeeding rates over a two to three month period. The staff realized that a reduction in visiting hours because of the H1N1 pandemic was the reason behind the increase in exclusive breastfeeding rates: mothers and babies were given the opportunity to learn about one another rather than entertain visitors in the early days postpartum.
This fall, JAMA published an editorial called Interventions Intended to Support Breastfeeding, a critique on individual versus system-level breastfeeding interventions, like BFHI.
“I read the article with dismay,” Westwater comments.
She goes on: “I understand we need to be evidence-based; I can’t downplay the importance of evidence…but in looking to the science for guidance, we can’t overlook the ‘duh,’ the common sense. We can’t overlook the natural. I always think about when we were giving birth in caves. Did the midwife or medicine woman take the baby away from the mother? What was the best and safest place for that baby? When I watch a baby [who’s] just been born crawl up a mother’s belly, there is something primal about that. There’s something that goes back to our most ancient survival mechanisms, so I don’t really feel like I need evidence to show that that works.”
Westwater comments further.
“What [the authors are] saying is having an institution support maternity care practice changes isn’t as important as individual interventions; however if the hospital is not making a commitment on an institutional level to improve outcomes, they’re not going to train lactational professionals. They’re not going to give staff time to do the intervention. It does have to be on an institutional level or the institution will not [direct] its resources in a way that is supportive of individual breastfeeding interventions.”
Since working with HCP, Westwater has been struck by the diversity of our country’s landscapes and people. She says has gained perspective on the common ground maternal child health advocates share.
“The folks that we deal with, regardless of their religious background or political beliefs, all want to improve breastfeeding outcomes,” Westwater observes. “It saddens me when I look at how polarized we are in this country. And yet when I travel around and teach classes wherever it may be, there is a sense of comradery, sameness and a passion for healthcare and improving maternity care practices. What I see is that we do have common ground in this country. Maybe something like breastfeeding is the way for us to come together and move forward.”