Given breastfeeding’s health benefits for both mothers and infants, researchers at Hope College are seeking to increase the practice in Michigan.

The team is focusing especially on low-income women, for whom the researchers note the participation rate is far below the overall statewide average — which they would also like to see higher.  Working with area lactation providers, they’ll be providing lactation coaches and measuring the impact on the mothers’ experience and how they feel about it.  The 24-month study has been funded through a $50,000 grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation.

“Multiple health organizations recommend that all infants receive exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age,” said Dr. Anita Esquerra-Zwiers, assistant professor of nursing, who is co-leading the study with Dr. Alyssa Cheadle, associate professor of psychology. “However, the six-month any breastfeeding rate was less than 60% for Michigan mothers and less than 21% for Michigan participants in the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.”

Both of the faculty leads specialize in topics related to pregnancy.  Cheadle teaches courses on research methods and health psychology, and her research interests focus on how religious and spiritual factors influence health, especially for pregnant and postpartum women.  Esquerra-Zwiers’ clinical area of expertise is obstetrics and nursing, and in 2017 she established the Hope-based research group Mother’s Milk for Michigan Infants to learn more about what influences a mother’s ability to make enough milk for her baby.  The two professors will be conducting the research collaboratively with Hope nursing, psychology and global health students.

“Obesity, cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes are high among low-income minority populations,” Esquerra-Zwiers said. For mothers, she said, “Breastfeeding can mitigate these health outcomes as the longer the duration of breastfeeding, the greater the protective effect against maternal breast and ovarian cancer, type two diabetes, the risk of postpartum depression and stroke.”

“In addition to maternal health benefits, breastfeeding reduces infant mortality rates, diabetes and cardiovascular risk, allergic symptoms of asthma and eczema, and positively impacts intelligence,” Esquerra-Zwiers said.

The lactation providers with which the researchers are partnering include Nourished Beginnings, 2 for Baby and Foundational Feeding.  Working within their existing care models, the lactation coaches provided by the study will help the mothers develop and implement a breastfeeding plan, and provide point-of-care service, through a series of home visits across the first 14 days after the baby is born.  The participating mothers will be asked to complete logs and surveys online to help the team evaluate how well the program works.

Cheadle and Esquerra-Zwiers explained that they will share the results of the study at various local, regional and national conferences, and in peer-reviewed journals.  If the intervention proves practical and successful, they’ll also lobby for broader implementation and seek additional funding sources to support it.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation is interested in innovative and evidence-based research grants that address urgent health issues, health inequities, social determinants of health, and healthcare access, quality and cost.  The Hope study, titled “My Mother’s Milk for Michigan Infants Lactation Coach: An evidence-based multidimensional lactation support service,” has been supported through the foundation’s Investigator-Initiated Research Program, which supports doctoral-level researchers who focus on applied projects to improve health care quality, cost and accessibility.