Appalachian Breastfeeding Network: Starting From Scratch
Between 2011 and 2016, the Ohio Department of Health conducted a series of studies to assess the factors that influence breastfeeding initiation and persistence in the Appalachian regions. Findings from these studies played a key role in the creation of the Appalachian Breastfeeding Network in May of 2016 by Stephanie Carroll, who serves as the Acting President. Together with the board, the ABN is spearheading the fight to close the breastfeeding rate gap in appalachian communities.
The Appalachian Region includes all of West Virginia and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Region is home to more than 25 million people and covers 420 counties and almost 205,000 square miles. Communities who come from the Appalachian region have unique cultural needs and ways of learning. "Appalachian people learn through personal stories, so the trainings we will be providing will include a lot of storytelling," says Stephanie Carroll. The Appalachian community also face many of the same negative stereotypes, stigmas and the social and physical isolation from resources and education that African American communities face. When the data is disaggregated, the breastfeeding rates of both populations are similar. The Appalachian community is also burdened by high rates of opioid addiction among mothers, high infant mortality rates and doctors who do not understand the culture.
The Appalachian Breastfeeding Network currently has 300 members in twelve states. Its partners include the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Breastfeeding Alliance, the Ohio Lactation Consultant Association, and the WIC Programs in Ohio, Virginia , and Kentucky. The ABN is actively involved in improving the landscape of breastfeeding through a number of initiatives:
- ABN initiated Hospital Education Initiatives offering free education to doctors and nurses because of the absence of Baby Friendly Hospitals in the region. The first BFHI designated hospital was designated last month (May 2017), in West Virginia. They have identified eleven priority areas: Appalachian Culture, Family Dynamics, Breastfeeding Myths, Breastfeeding and Birth Control, Supplementation, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), Nipple Shields and Other Breastfeeding "Aides," Medications and Breastfeeding, Tongue/Lip Tie, WHO Code Compliancy, and Breastfeeding the Premature Infant.
- The Appalachian Breastfeeding Network has also created the Empower Mom Movement, a social media movement to impact the cultural view of breastfeeding among Appalachian women. The movement focuses on millennial moms and helps them better understand their rights as a patient and advocate for breastfeeding support. The Appalachian Breastfeeding Network has a members only forum hosted on their website where individuals are welcome to join the conversation and network with others working to improve the first food landscape of the Appalachian community. Membership is free and available through the website.
- The region has been listed with fathers and African Americans as part of a special section of the Ohio Department of Heath's new Early Childhood Health Network, a major advancement.
- In March 2017, the Appalachian Breastfeeding Network attended Ohio Lactation Consultant Association's Annual "Breastfest" Conference where Stephanie Carroll was recognized as an Innovative Cultural Change Agent, and the organization received a $1,000 grant to be used towards the 1st Annual Appalachian Breastfeeding Conference, "Normalizing Breastfeeding in Appalachia" in October 2017. The organization also ran a t-shirt fundraiser earlier this year to raise funds for the conference.
Organizing across state lines is a major challenge for this young organization, but they use technology to fill the gap. The network currently hosts a monthly conference call to keep everyone on the same page. While the Appalachian Breastfeeding Network has made significant strides in their short organizational life, Stephanie and the board are keeping their eyes on the future. They hope to expand their reach by increasing partnerships with organizations and state health departments outside of Ohio to other Appalachian Regions.