A hospital that delivers more than a quarter of babies born in Chicago is entering an international program that aims to improve the health of both newborns and their mothers. The program focuses on breastfeeding.
Prentice Women’s Hospital, part of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, is planning to follow 10 guidelines set by the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, a program sponsored by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund, also known as UNICEF.
The guidelines include helping mothers begin breastfeeding within an hour of birth, providing infants no food or drink other than breast milk unless medically necessary, giving no pacifiers or artificial nipples to breastfeeding babies and allowing mothers and newborns to room together around the clock.
Prentice, one of eight Chicago hospitals to apply for the baby-friendly status so far, delivers about 12,000 infants a year, more than any other facility in the city. The path toward the designation includes extensive staff training and new hospital policies. The process could last years.
“All the staff in the hospital will get some exposure to what it means to be a baby-friendly hospital,” said Adam Becker, executive director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, a federally funded group that works with the city to help hospitals enter the international program. “Then there are many categories of staff that do more hands-on training.”
“If Prentice takes all these steps,” Becker added, “roughly 27 percent of babies born in Chicago and their mothers will have access to the most supportive environment possible to encourage breastfeeding from birth.”
But the program has a downside, according to Dr. Maura Quinlan, vice chairwoman of the Illinois section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “The main issue is time, especially documenting the whole process and the 10 steps,” she said. “I don’t think many smaller hospitals have the resources to go through the application.”
“The designation is something the hospital can show on its website but it doesn’t mean that other hospitals don’t provide the same services,” said Quinlan, who delivers babies at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn.
Prentice’s quest for baby-friendly status marks a turnaround of sorts. Years ago the hospital eliminated many of its lactation-specialist positions.
Illinois birth-certificate data for the six months ending last July 31 suggest that about 80 percent of Prentice newborns breastfed there. By that measure, the hospital ranked sixth among 19 facilities that deliver babies in the city.
The first hospital in Chicago to apply for the baby-friendly status was Holy Cross last summer. A top official there said a WBEZ report about the hospital’s breastfeeding performance made improvement a priority.
The other Chicago applicants include Mount Sinai Hospital, St. Anthony Hospital, the University of Illinois Medical Center, St. Joseph Hospital, Resurrection Medical Center and Roseland Community Hospital.
More than 15,000 facilities in 134 countries have earned the baby-friendly status since the program’s 1991 launch, according to UNICEF. In the United States, just 125 hospitals had received the designation by December, according to New York-based Baby-Friendly USA Inc., a chapter of the international program. The only two in Illinois are Pekin Hospital in downstate Pekin and St. John’s Hospital, further south in Springfield.
U.S. health officials say breastfeeding helps newborns avoid infections, obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma. For mothers, they say it reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies get no solids or liquids other than breast milk for the first six months of life.