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Vol. LX, No. 15
July 25, 2008

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Program Helps Mothers Give Babies Strong Start in Life

  Dr. Jane Balkam pioneered the NIH Lactation Program a decade ago and says it still “gets me up and going in the morning.”  
  Dr. Jane Balkam pioneered the NIH Lactation Program a decade ago and says it still “gets me up and going in the morning.”  

It’s not surprising to walk into a workspace at NIH and see a baby photo or two on display. But in Dr. Jane Balkam’s office in Bldg. 31, Rm. B2B39, there are dozens.

For her, these happy children are more than uplifting—they’re inspiration. The NIH Lactation Program, started by Balkam a decade ago, has helped a surprising number of NIH mothers successfully breastfeed, both before and after they return to work.

“I believe that breastfeeding is life-changing for both the mother and the baby,” she says. “And the thought that through what we’re doing, we can help hundreds if not thousands of mothers give babies a healthier start in life—that’s pretty exciting stuff.”

Balkam, an independent lactation consultant, first brought the idea of the program to NIH in 1998. Several institutes contributed funds to sponsor it as a pilot program, and it was almost immediately successful. “What we found after 2 years is that we had rates of breastfeeding duration that were well above the national and state averages,” she says. After that trial period, the Office of the Director decided to make it an ongoing program, and it’s now a part of the Work/Life Center.

The core facets of the program have remained the same since the start: prenatal breastfeeding classes, telephone support for employees on maternity leave, return-to-work consultations and 26 onsite lactation rooms in multiple buildings. Balkam says the telephone consultations—starting just after a baby is born—come at a particularly crucial time, when difficulties with breastfeeding can cause a mother to stop trying.

“With the short stays new mothers often have in the hospital, they don’t always get the instruction or support they need,” she explains. “So a lot of times we can help them over what seems like an insurmountable issue…with a little bit of coaching.”

This advice, given in a timely fashion, “can be the difference between somebody giving up, and somebody continuing to feed the baby and being successful for a long period of time.”

Then, as the time for the mother’s return to NIH approaches, Balkam, along with her fellow consultant, Colleen Prorok, help “strategize” how the woman will continue to provide breast milk after her work resumes.

“If the new mother knows how she’s going to support her milk supply when she’s separated from her baby, where she’s going to go, what type of equipment is the most effective, how often she should pump, how to store and handle the milk appropriately in a workplace situation, those things can go a long way toward helping her be successful.”

And why is it so important to breastfeed successfully? According to HHS’s Office on Women’s Health, breast milk contains more than 200 infection-fighting agents that cannot be replicated. Research shows that babies who aren’t breastfed exclusively for their first 6 months are more likely to develop allergies and obesity later on, and are more likely to suffer from colds, flu, ear infections and other respiratory illnesses, and to make more trips to the doctor. On top of this, Balkam says there are interpersonal benefits for both the mother and baby. “One can certainly bond with a baby when they’re formula feeding,” she adds. “But I do think a very special bond is made with a baby when new mothers nurse their babies.”

Balkam came to this career for both professional and personal reasons. As a pediatric nurse practitioner, she would often work with new mothers who would say things like, “I’d like to breastfeed, but I know I have to go back to work in a few weeks, so I’m not going to bother.” At the same time, as a mother of four sons, she saw firsthand how difficult it could be to try to breastfeed while working. When her oldest son was born 25 years ago, “you were on your own, hiding out in the restroom” using inferior pumping equipment, she says. When she heard about lactation programs being developed in California, she quickly began her training.

Even though workplace lactation programs are no longer unusual, Balkam believes NIH’s is a particularly strong one. They work with more than 300 women per year on average, and in a recent survey of participants, 96 percent of respondents said they’d recommend the program to a coworker and 97 percent said the program improved the quality of worklife here.

The program also benefits NIH, she believes. “The payoff to the organization is that when more mothers breastfeed, the results are healthier babies. That means less time that a mother needs to take off to take care of a sick baby, and lower health care costs,” she says.

Many women have gone through the program more than once, she notes. Others, who have had babies while working elsewhere, come to her raving about how much better the NIH program is than at other worksites. But Balkam, who says marketing isn’t her strong suit, isn’t as interested in going out to tout the program’s successes as she is in participating in it every week.

“My thing is really working with mothers and babies,” she says. “That’s what gets me up and going in the morning.”

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