Officials with Northwest Community Hospital launched a new initiative this month aimed at fighting obesity among children.
Only they're starting at the beginning, by promoting breast-feeding among new mothers.
"It's been documented that breast-feeding, especially when it's the sole form of nutrition for the first nine months, reduces a baby's odds of becoming overweight by more than 30 percent," says Karen Baker, the hospital's community services director.
Last week, Baker oversaw a class targeting one of their key markets: Latino mothers, whose children have a high risk of obesity and a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes as adults.
Working with a grant from the Center for Disease Control, a first for Northwest Community, Baker has trained six peer counselors to educate Latino mothers about the benefits of breast-feeding, for them and their babies.
They held their first class at the Palatine Opportunity Center and it drew a capacity crowd. Rosa Vasquez of Wheeling led the session with Luz Sanchez of Buffalo Grove.
Both are bilingual and trained as "promotoras de salud" or community health workers, to help educate Latinos about important medical issues. Breast-feeding is their newest initiative.
"For this generation (of mothers) it's hard," Vasquez says, "because they live here and don't see their mothers and grandmothers, who live in Mexico. So they don't see people breast-feeding and they don't learn about the benefits."
Maria Juarez of Palatine, due in a few weeks with her third child, has been planning to breast-feed. However, like many of the women around her, her mother lives in Mexico and consequently, she had never learned much about the benefits of breast-feeding.
She said she hoped to learn more about combining the breast and bottle, to make sure the baby was getting enough nutrition.
This was one of the misconceptions the class aimed to dispel. Vasquez and Sanchez used props to demonstrate the size of an infant's stomach, moving from a large marble or cherry at the time of birth to a large egg at 10 days old.
Breast milk, they said, is sufficient to fill their tiny stomachs. Introducing a bottle or pacifier too early would work against successfully establishing breast-feeding.
If anything, Vasquez and Sanchez hope to empower the mothers before they deliver. The hospital setting alone is enough to intimidate them, Vasquez added.
"If you don't speak the language," she said, "it's difficult to take in all this information."
Vasquez and Sanchez explained that each mother would be given a wristband to wear stating they are a breast-feeding mother. Their infants will stay in the room with them, enabling them to nurse on demand.
Most importantly, the mothers left the class with the name and phone numbers of their peer counselors. It may not be the same as having a close family member to turn to, but having someone from their own community to support them, hospital officials reasoned, might make the difference in giving their babies a healthy start.