NEW YORK NURSE: December 2008
by Randi Hoffman
There is a circle of rocking chairs with flowery cushions in Alison Benjamin’s office. On the walls are posters saying “Breast is Best” and “How to Put Your Baby to Sleep.”
Benjamin, the breastfeeding coordinator at Harlem Hospital, says, “I always knew breast milk was the best nutrition for an infant, but it took time to get the community to understand that breast milk was best. We’re in a bottlefeeding culture.”
Benjamin has worked hard to help Harlem Hospital become the first facility in New York City designated “Baby-Friendly” by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
This is a global initiative and thus far only 64 facilities in the United States have received the designation.
Benjamin’s approach is direct and assertive, in a grandmotherly way. She walks into one of the hospital’s small waiting rooms and approaches a young woman with glasses changing the diaper of her tiny baby boy.
“You’re not using formula, are you?” Benjamin asks the young mother. The young woman jokes, “No, they’re like two watermelons.” She explains that her baby is five days old and she is there to fill out some paperwork for the baby’s birth certificate. Benjamin then questions the young woman about her use of a pacifier. “It’s OK if they cry,” she says. “It helps develop their lungs.” She then tells the young mother the time and place of her breast-feeding support group.
This hands-on approach has yielded results. In the first quarter of 2008, 81% of the mothers who delivered at Harlem Hospital were breastfeeding by the time they went home.
The “Baby-Friendly” certification has specific requirements. Hospitals or birthing centers must successfully implement the recommended 10 steps of a comprehensive breastfeeding program, which includes limits on baby formula, initiating breastfeeding in the first hour of life, keeping mothers and babies in the same room, and providing support groups for mothers who breastfeed.
“The United Nations came here and did a survey,” said Benjamin. “They talked to the doctors. They talked to the mommies on the floors. They looked at training records. They wanted to see proof we had a breastfeeding clinic. They said we needed to improve on some things, and then they came back. We just got a plaque with the emblem of the WHO and UNICEF.”
Benjamin faces many obstacles in her work convincing new mothers to breastfeed.
“Some people can’t even conceive of the fact that women’s breasts are the part of the anatomy used to nourish a child,” she said. “They think breasts are about sex and looking good in clothes. We have mommies who are 16 and 17 and don’t want to be here. Then we have to make sure that whoever surrounds the mommy understands the importance of breastfeeding. There are times when a mother will refuse, but then change her attitude and give it a try, and the baby will latch on.”
“And there also are women from other countries where breastfeeding is the norm, and they come here and think that using formula is prestigious,” Benjamin said.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Benjamin has been a nurse for 35 years. She said she worked in med-surg and as a hospital administrator at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. She came to Harlem Hospital in 1996 and has been in her current position since 1998. She said, “I get paid to talk to mothers about the importance of breastfeeding. People tell me I have a passion for it. I guess I do.”