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How one St. Louis WIC clinic is leading the way to help breastfeeding moms

Ayumi Takahashi
Ayumi Takahashi 
Special to NPR
In Missouri, most WIC mothers start breastfeeding but stop during the first year. Experts say there needs to be more support for retention because breastfeeding supports public health.

Family Care Health Centers in Carondelet is celebrating an award it received this week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for supporting mothers who breastfeed.

The health clinic is one of four Missouri Women, Infants and Children offices recognized for hiring people from the program's target population to serve as peer counselors for breastfeeding mothers. WIC serves many low-income and African American mothers who are statistically less likely to breastfeed.

“These individuals have previous experience with WIC and with the breastfeeding journey,” said Mary Nauert, a registered dietician and breastfeeding coordinator at the health clinic. “They're there to be that support system, be that person to support them along this journey.”

Nauert said mothers can experience plenty of lactational problems after a baby is first born, which often discourages them from continuing to breastfeed.

“It's really important to be able to help with initiation of breastfeeding and also duration of breastfeeding, and to serve a gap in the gap in care in the community,” she said.

Nauert said she’s grateful for the support and education Family Care Health Centers has been able to provide to mothers, but the work is still challenging.

In St. Louis, Nauert said language diversity and transportation deserts make it difficult for many WIC clinics to connect with mothers who need help breastfeeding.

“It’s something that our community wants,” Nauert said. “We see really high rates of initiation. And then as the months go on, breastfeeding rates tend to decrease or drop off.”

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, over 75% of Missouri WIC moms initiate breastfeeding, but most do not continue through the first year.

“They may work in workplaces that are less supportive of breastfeeding where there are not a lot of places to pump," said state breastfeeding coordinator Lisa Schlientz. “Or they may feel that formula is more normalized or easier to make a part of their busy [lives].”

Recent federal law expands protections for breastfeeding mothers, but Schlientz said more work needs to be done to make sure mothers’ rights are honored.

“We can always work on decreasing the stigma around breastfeeding. We can always work on increasing workplace support for our moms that would like to pump milk for their babies,” she said.

Additionally, national WIC enrollment has been declining over the past decade, and Missouri’s participation fell more than most states' during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schlientz said it becomes harder to support breastfeeding mothers if they do not use WIC, because they cannot access peer support programs like the one at Family Care Health Centers.

Failing to support breastfeeding presents a public health issue, said Erin O’Reilly, a certified lactation consultant and leader of the St. Louis La Leche League.

“The mother and baby both benefit [from breastfeeding]. So we're going to pay less health care dollars down the line,” she said. “It's one of our most potent public health tools.”

O’Reilly said human milk provides nutrients that reduce a baby’s risk for short-term and long-term illnesses, like diabetes and heart problems. Additionally, studies suggest mothers who breastfeed are more than 25% less likely to be diagnosed with diabetes.

O’Reilly said she is proud of Family Care Health Centers for winning an award, and she believes other WIC clinics should follow along, even though it will be hard to break down systemic barriers to breastfeeding.

“What we need to do is pull back from the free formula and start making sure that every WIC clinic has a breastfeeding support team,” she said.

Lilley Halloran was a Summer '23 News Intern at St. Louis Public Radio. She is studying Journalism and Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.