In Waukegan, Illinois, there are no certified baby-friendly hospitals, which have policies and practices to support breastfeeding. But that hasn’t stopped the madrinas, or “godmothers,” of Our Lady Guadalupe Church from introducing new Latina moms to breastfeeding.
After giving birth – and before they are discharged from the hospital – mothers are regularly handed bottles of formula by the hospital staff. Many leave the hospital, formula in hand, uninformed of their own natural ability to feed their babies – that is, until they meet the madrinas.
These madrinas reach out to new mothers, offer breastfeeding information and classes, make home visits and provide emotional support. Most importantly, they do all this in Spanish, so they are able to reach many Latina mothers for whom Spanish is their first language.
“Mothers often ask, ‘Why does the government bring us formula if it’s not better than breastfeeding?’” said Olivina Reza, one of the madrinas. “Some women don’t know how to hold their babies, some women want to quit because they don’t think they can breastfeed their baby.”
Malena Anguiano was originally skeptical about breastfeeding and, at first, declined to participate in the madrinas program. But she says if it hadn’t been for the madrinas, she never would have tried to breastfeed.
“I attended the class and learned how important the benefits were to me and my baby. I’m still breastfeeding at 10 months,” Malena said. “[Before] I thought breastfeeding was for women who couldn’t afford formula.” Malena now looks forward to helping other mothers breastfeed, so they too may provide their babies with a healthy start to life while building a strong maternal-child bond.
Returning to breastfeeding cultural roots
Lack of Spanish-language breastfeeding information is an oversight in a community like Waukegan, which is 53 percent Latino. However, the madrinas are ensuring Spanish-speaking families can access important information about breastfeeding’s benefits.
In addition to mother-baby bonding, breastfeeding improves respiratory and heart health, promotes a healthier weight for mom and baby, and increases a child’s IQ. But when a mom doesn’t know of the many benefits of breastfeeding, she cannot make an informed decision.
The decline in breastfeeding among Latinas is the result of American culture – not their own. Research shows that the longer Latina women live in the United States, the more acculturated they become, and the less likely they are to breastfeed. First-generation Latina breastfeeding rates are 46 percent, compared to 32 percent for U.S.-born Latinas.
Fortunately, the madrinas are working to ensure the next generation of Latina mothers – and their daughters and granddaughters – do not forget maternal traditions like breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding success found in relationships, trust
What makes the work of the madrinas so successful is more than a shared language – it’s the “cultural humility” the women bring, says Lorena Gonzales, who works with the Center for New Communities, which runs several community breastfeeding initiatives, including the one in Waukegan, as well as in South Carolina, Arizona, Miami and California.
Gonzales explains that within the Latino community, building trust and respect are incredibly important but it’s work that takes years.
“[The madrinas] are from the community – they are the community,” she shares. “They understand the needs, the language, the nuances of the culture.”
Relationships are so vital in reaching Latino families that the madrinas have developed a partnership with Waukegan’s Vista Hospital. The hospital provides a workspace so the madrinas can help new mothers learn to breastfeed right from the start.
Looking toward the future – and nurturing the whole family
Now, the madrinas are looking to expand the programs they offer. They’ve recently purchased two breast pumps to begin a loan service, so moms can continue to breastfeed even after they return to work.
Their biggest concern is educating the whole community – not just moms, but dads and grandparents too – about breastfeeding and how everyone can play a role in supporting mothers and babies.
Fathers frequently accompany wives or girlfriends to classes to assist with childcare, without the intention to participate. Just by being present, fathers are exposed to important family care information – it’s what Gonzales calls “vicarious learning.”
“There’s a collective spirit,” Gonzales says. “We’re in this together. The success of the mother’s breastfeeding is within that support.”
The church also has thrown community “baby showers,” with the aim to bring more fathers into the community. It’s a way for the madrinas to connect with everyone, across genders and across generations.
Madrina Olivia Díaz says that it’s “not just mothers but like a big family.” And that big family is tackling more than just breastfeeding – it’s a community, focused on broader issues of health, immigration, domestic violence and education.
A grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation was “the seed,” but it’s the community that has cultivated something sustainable.