It took five years, a hospital-wide coalition, binders of data and surveys and one intensive assessment, for North Valley Hospital to achieve recognition for the “baby friendly” care many Flathead residents know firsthand.
As of June, the hospital in Whitefish has been officially designated as a Baby Friendly Facility by Baby Friendly USA, the national accrediting body for the World Health Organization and UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative.
The designation reflects several years of strategizing, implementation and coordination for North Valley Hospital and its infant-care unit, the Birth Center. It’s “a major achievement for the hospital and the patients seeking the family centered care that we provide,” said Sandra Beale, a registered nurse, Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and Internationally Certified Childbirth Educator (ICCE) at the Birth Center and a coordinator for the Baby Friendly Task Force at the hospital.
Though a birthing center would seem to be, by definition, baby-friendly, the official designation actually indicates significant efforts to meet and document international goals for the health of infants and new mothers. The World Health Organization and UNICEF launched the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative in 1991 to encourage the adoption of the “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding” and the “International Code of Marketing for Breast-milk Substitutes” — guidelines on the information, skills and support needed to ensure babies receive the best nutrition possible at the earliest age.
The idea, said Beale, is that “as time goes on and there’s more Baby Friendly hospitals worldwide, nationwide — that will raise up the overall nutrition and health of moms and babies.”
Since its inception, Baby Friendly USA has accredited over 500 hospitals in the U.S.; North Valley is the 11th hospital in Montana to receive the distinction and the first in the Flathead Valley.
The process for achieving the designation began several years ago. Beale and director of the Birth Center Cindy Walp worked with hospital leadership to establish the Baby Friendly Task Force, which included representatives from of the Birth Center, other hospital departments and at least one provider from every clinic that works with North Valley. The group met regularly to make the multi-step designation process a hospital-wide one.
At the beginning, “you have to start by analyzing where your hospital is currently and how you’re going to meet all the criteria involved to become a Baby Friendly hospital,” said Beale. “The baseline is that you follow the 10 steps.”
Though, according to Beale, many of the Baby Friendly steps came “naturally” to the hospital due to its patient-centered philosophy as a Planetree facility, North Valley still had to “revise a lot of [its] policies to adhere to the criteria of the ten steps and the international code of marketing.” For example, unless there’s an emergency, newborns now remain in the room with their mothers after birth. Skin-to-skin contact is initiated immediately, to help establish the connection and comfort for breastfeeding.
“One of the other things we’re focusing on is triads — it’s not just the mom, it’s a support person,” said Beale. “Two adults, with a baby. They stay together as a family this entire time.”
All told, the hospital, and the Birth Center in particular, adapted its policies so that all patients receive “evidence-based practices to provide the gold standard of care” related to childbirth and new parenting.
Beyond the 10 steps, North Valley also implemented the Baby Friendly philosophy through education efforts — classes, groups and individual counseling — around breastfeeding, prenatal preparation and post-natal care.
According to the World Health Organization, breastfeeding remains the optimal form of nutrition for infants. However, “there’s a huge population of women who can breastfeed and want to but don’t have that support or empowerment necessary to do it,” said Beale.
“When people don’t have that support, education, or encouragement behind it, then they don’t know how to proceed.”
Whether a new mom is nervous to try breastfeeding or, for personal reasons, opting for formula feeding, being Baby Friendly guides North Valley’s care in giving mothers the support that fits them, said Beale.
“We want to support everybody. This is a great achievement of the hospital overall to support our community and the families or our community in whatever way they are asking us to.”
The patient focus was tested in the final step of certification, in which Baby Friendly representatives visited and interviewed providers, current and former patients on the care they received at the hospital.
The process involved hours of logistical work, such as release forms and gathering data, on top of keeping up with the pace of the Birth Center, which, according to North Valley community relations manager Allison Linville, delivers between 550 and 600 babies per year, with a breastfeeding rate of 98 percent.
“This designation could not have happened without the support of physicians and staff. It was a lot of hard work,” said Beale.
“But it was worth it, because we’re proud to say...’Yes, we provide this consistent care as a Baby Friendly hospital.’”
Part of North Valley’s work as a Baby Friendly facility is continuing community education around breastfeeding and infant care. To celebrate this week’s “World Breastfeeding Week” North Valley is hosting the “It’s All About Our Kids” education and family fun event Thursday, Aug. 2 from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. at the hospital’s north parking lot, 1600 Hospital Way, Whitefish.
The event, sponsored by the Flathead Valley Breastfeeding Coalition, will include information booths, face painting, music and entertainment, raffles, food vendors and more.
Reporter Adrian Horton can be reached at email@example.com or at 758-4439.