Over half of the Hispanic Health Council’s Breastfeeding Heritage and Pride (BHP) Program peer counselors were once served by the program as mothers enduring mastitis or going back to work early or other barriers to healthy infant feeding. Yet, some of these mothers still managed to breastfeed into toddlerhood.
“They took the knowledge to not only be able to succeed but [brought] it back into their community,” BHP program manager and lactation consultant Cody Cuni, IBCLC, BS says. “This is a success story.”
BHP is a person-centered, peer support counseling program intended to increase breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity among low-income, minority women in the greater Hartford, Connecticut area. For over 20 years, the program has existed in some form. In 2000, an official review of the program was completed and solidified the peer-counseling model.
The program’s name was born out of community feedback, mainly from Puerto Rican families. Cuni explains that as community Puerto Ricans were heavily targeted by formula marketing, the name ‘Breastfeeding Heritage and Pride’ grew from the idea of reclaiming breastfeeding as part of their heritage.
Often, the lactation model of care is rooted in colonization, but Cuni says that their program strives to respect and celebrate diversity.
“Our program seeks to empower…” she begins. “[Breastfeeding] is something that is yours, and something that has always been yours,” she says, speaking to the people they serve.
As program manager, Cuni trains the peer counselors through a 40-hour comprehensive lactation training. She approaches the training through a lens of diversity and cultural competence, helping peer counselors learn to have respectful conversations and teaching them how to be an advocate.
She explains, “Our peer counselors are working with mothers who do face a lot of bias in their health care and in lactation, so we have whole trainings on how to communicate with a provider, how to approach hospital staff who say things like ‘Don’t waste your time on that mother…’”
Peer counselors embark on visits with senior peer counselors and other lactation care providers as part of their mentorship model.
The program also provides continuing education to stay relevant and weekly meetings to complete case reviews.
As part of their grant funding, BHP is required to track their breastfeeding rates, but Cuni says that what she finds more compelling than these numbers, is the documentation of the lactating person’s individual goals.
Empowering mothers to seek their own goals is our ultimate goal, Cuni says.
BHP is nestled in the Hispanic Health Council’s Parent and Family Learning department which offers other supports throughout the “cycle of learning throughout a family’s lifespan”.
“A holistic approach of care is vital especially for maternal child health care,” Cuni explains. “The first 1,000 days of life are critical to laying a healthy foundation.”
Practicing on a continuum of care gives Cuni and her colleagues the ability to gain a deep understanding of the families they serve, she says.
“Because we work so closely with the families, we establish trust and are able to refer in a way that they might not be open with [other providers].”
The clients that BHP serves are up against every breastfeeding challenge that every family faces in our country, but the issues are compounded and amplified by the stress of living in communities steeped in systemic racism and lack of resources, Cuni explains.
Their clients are managing intergenerational trauma and all of the symptoms associated with trauma, at a cellular level and beyond. For instance, BHP clients have a higher propensity of birthing babies with complex medical needs because of higher rates of preterm labor, gestational diabetes and other health concerns.
Cuni points out other challenges like those associated with being an undoumented immigrant. Gaining access to basic tools like breast pumps can be nearly impossible. Some of their clients return to work at two weeks postpartum after a cesarean section, not by choice of course, but for fear of losing their work as part-time employees.
And although Connecticut has workplace lactation laws in place, mothers will find that if they make noise about those protections, they might not see their name on the schedule any longer.
Yet, despite all of these obstacles, Cuni says, “There is a sense of resiliency. They’re overcoming so much and they’re not even sitting in that; they’re just living their lives and wanting to do the best for their baby. That resiliency is really inspiring.”
Cuni shares about a mother who lost her baby late in her pregnancy and decided to pump and donate her milk for six months.
“This mom, her experience, her unimaginable tragedy…she still wanted to do something with her milk, and it was really a privilege for our peer counselors to support her.”
Another client they served, after struggling to assert her workplace lactation rights, had a position created for her by their HR department as “breastfeeding liaison”. Now, she is an advocate for any breastfeeding or lactating mother at her workplace.
“Not only did she win for herself, she left it better,” Cuni comments.
Cuni came to this work as a stay-at-home mom with ten years of breastfeeding experience. She was a single mother, returning to the workforce after leaving an abusive marriage.
“My breastfeeding experience was valued as an asset,” Cuni remembers. “My lived experience counted.”
She goes on, “As women, and especially as mothers, we’re always caring for someone else. The pressures that we face make wellness difficult. Our society needs to do more to recognize the value that women have and the support they need to succeed. I want to …. amplify the voices, because if we listen, the answers that we need to solve the maternal mortality crisis, the answers are there if we listen to the women and families we are working with.”
For those interested in supporting the work of the Hispanic Health Council’s BHP, they are looking for donated breastfeeding supplies. You can get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.