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After Nikki Van Strien delivered her first son in Mesa, Ariz. (30.5% Latino), she realized the discharge package given to all new moms by the hospital could undermine a woman’s breastfeeding goals by pushing formula. She wanted to do something to support breastfeeding moms immediately after delivery.
In 2011, Van Strien and some other moms developed the AZ Breastfeeding Bag Project to provide all new breastfeeding mothers with a bag filled with educational material and breastfeeding supply samples. They became a non-profit and recruited volunteers and donations to reach new mothers birthing in the hospital, birth center, or home.
Breastfeeding Rates Low in Arizona
Nikki Van Strien, a new mom in Mesa, Ariz., wanted to connect with other moms for support. She joined a local group she found through Facebook.
Through them, Van Strien learned more about the benefits of breastfeeding for both mothers and babies. These include reducing the risk of infectious diseases, asthma, atopic dermatitis, childhood leukemia, diabetes, obesity, and sudden infant death syndrome for babies. For mothers, breastfeeding reduces the risk of diabetes and estrogen-related cancers, according to state stats.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, with continuation of breastfeeding for one year or longer.
In fact, one of the Department of Health and Human Services Healthy People 2010 goals was to increase the proportion of mothers who breastfeed their babies at six months to 50%.
Unfortunately, rates of Arizona mothers who breastfeed their babies at six months were among the lowest in the nation at 37.4%. In 2010, one quarter of breastfed infants in Arizona were given formula before 2 days of age.
Currently, the Healthy People 2020 objectives are to increase the proportion of infants who are breastfed at six months to 60.6%.
Van Strien and her Facebook group wanted to do more to support other breastfeeding moms. They asked themselves what might be helpful for breastfeeding moms, what do breastfeeding moms need to know, and what resources do breastfeeding moms need to find in the community.
They decided that breastfeeding support, education, and information immediately after delivery, for moms in the Phoenix area (40.8% Latino), would be the most beneficial. In many hospitals, discharge bags for new mothers contain free samples from infant formula manufacturers to build brand loyalty; however, formula samples may undermine women’s efforts to breastfeed, and breastfeeding rates may improve when hospitals deemphasize the use of formula.
According to a 2015 Research Review on Latino Kids and Healthy Weight, nine of 13 studies demonstrated lower breastfeeding rates among women who had received hospital discharge packs containing formula samples or coupons than those who didn’t.
Mom Explores Breastfeeding Bags
In 2011, Van Strien and her Facebook group researched “breastfeeding bag” projects and found one in Oregon that gave them a model to follow.
A few years earlier, Portland, Ore., became the first city in the country to have both public and private hospitals ban formula samples in discharge packs. The Breastfeeding Coalition of Oregon was inspired and supported by “Ban the Bag” a national campaign to stop formula-company marketing in maternity hospitals.
“Mothers who want the free formula can request it from the formula companies, but hospitals should market health and nothing else,” Amelia Psmythe, executive director of the Nursing Mothers Counsel of Oregon wrote in the 2007 press release announcing Portland’s efforts to ban the bag.
Van Strien contacted the Breastfeeding Coalition of Oregon and they gave her advice on some of the steps she should take to start a similar organization in Arizona. They told her about getting nonprofit status, setting up communications and social media channels, and fundraising.
See a list of bag-free hospitals and birth centers across the country.
Rather than ban formula samples, Van Strien and her team wanted to provide bags with valuable supplies and information to support breastfeeding moms, like disposable or reusable nursing pads, breastmilk storage bags, nipple cream, diapers, coupons, and locations and schedules for postpartum yoga classes and lactation classes. They decided to call themselves the AZ Breastfeeding Bag Project.
The AZ Breastfeeding Bag Project Begins
None of the team had pursued anything like this before, but they went for it. Email, Facebook, and Twitter were free, but they had to pay to apply for nonprofit certification.
They asked a lawyer friend of theirs to edit the nonprofit documents for submission.
In early 2012, the group gained 501(c)(3) status, and Van Strien and her team began fundraising on Facebook. They used the platform to ask for support and donations of items to put in the bags, as well as seek out volunteers to help stuff the bags.
At first, they asked for reusable shopping bags to fill. They would place a box in a health care provider’s office to receive empty bags, pick them up, fill them with supplies and information, and return them to the care provider to distribute.
One day, the group realized that they all could sew; they began taking turns buying fabric and sewing bags.
They continued to recruit volunteers and s
eek out donations (including asking for fabric) on social media and through bag-stuffing events they hosted. The group worked with local organizations that serve pregnant or nursing mothers, child birth educators, and small businesses to set up bartering deals and distribution channels. They also worked to obtain additional donations and volunteers to help put the bags together.
For example, they worked with Zoolikins (natural baby products and supplies for modern moms), Modern Mommy Boutique, and the Baby Moon Inn Birth Center. These businesses would donate gift baskets, gift certificates, and free classes to be auctioned through AZ Breastfeeding Bag Project online auctions, wherein they keep the proceeds. These businesses also help pass out bags to moms in need.
A local photographer, Kristen Carter Photography, donates time, pictures, and a photo book to 15-20 new moms per year, giving all donations to the AZ Breastfeeding Bag Project. Local prenatal and postpartum yoga instructor from HA Yoga, Nikki Brewer, donates yoga classes and helps host fundraising events at her yoga studio.
Hundreds of Bags are Handed Out Each Year
After two years of sewing bags, they had enough funds to buy them with their logo on them to establish their brand, increase their name recognition, create authenticity, and serve as a reminder to all moms that they are not alone.
Today they donate up to 800-1,000 bags in one year in the Phoenix area, which is nowhere near enough, Van Strien says.
“We run out of bags,” Van Strien said. “There is no shortage of moms who need these bags.”
AZ Breastfeeding Bag Project continues to seek volunteers as well as monetary and in-kind donations. The group has experienced a lot of growth on social media, as people share their content, events, and donation requests.
Moms in other states call asking for the bags and Van Strien recommends they start their own breastfeeding bag project. She has advised them to start of a Facebook page, a website, and apply for nonprofit status.
One of the volunteers took a grant writing course and is leading the process to apply for grants to expand and advance the AZ Breastfeeding Bag Project.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.