Increasing Access to Breastfeeding Friendly Hospitals: The Iowa Experience


By Jane Stockton, Community Health Consultant, Bureau of Nutrition and Health Promotion, Iowa Department of Public Health & Catherine Lillehoj, Ph.D. Research Analyst, Iowa Department of Public Health

The Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) has a long tradition of striving to improve the health and wellness of all residents. Because breastfeeding is a key strategy to preventing obesity among children and youth, IDPH has worked for the past several years to increase rates of breastfeeding initiation and duration.

Five years ago, Iowa ranked 31 out of 53 states and territories on a national survey, the Maternity Practices in Infant Nutrition and Care (mPINC). When we looked a little deeper, we realized that the rural nature of our state made maternal nutrition and care somewhat difficult.

For instance, 89 percent of Iowa counties are considered rural, with hospitals in rural counties having a higher proportion of Medicaid births (40 to 60 percent of births). Sadly, these hospitals often don’t have the necessary resources to truly improve breastfeeding education and provide the appropriate technical assistance. In general, rural hospitals experience unique barriers due to distance between hospitals, patients and other facilities, plus staff are often not dedicated to working in maternity care units.

To get over these hurdles, IDPH targeted hospitals in rural counties with significant numbers of Medicaid births. One of the preliminary activities to improve breastfeeding was to meet with key hospital partners (e.g., OB managers, Chief Nursing Officers, Directors of Nursing, Educators). Along with key partners, hospital policies related to breastfeeding were reviewed and results of the mPINC survey were discussed. Following these initial meetings, 53 hospitals voluntarily completed a pre-assessment using a self-appraisal tool. Subsequently, the IDPH hosted a training, called 6 Steps 4 Success, which we developed specifically to address the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, a set of evidence-based practices that have been shown to increase breastfeeding initiation and duration.

After receiving technical assistance, resources and staff education, 37 of the 53 hospitals completed a post-assessment. The majority of the hospitals implemented at least three of the Ten Steps and the most widely adopted policy, encouraging breastfeeding on demand, was implemented by 83 percent of the hospitals. After attending the 6 Steps 4 Success training, one nurse stated, “This gave me a lot to think about. I have changed my position and going to change my ideas, way I promote breastfeeding.” Hospitals frequently express their gratitude for the technical assistance and education being brought to them in their rural setting, rather than having to go to the larger cities for these services.

To further enhance statewide breastfeeding initiatives, efforts for the past two years have focused on improving maternity practice in four or five hospitals each year that meet three criteria: rural location, Medicaid birth rate higher than statewide average and an mPINC score of less than the statewide composite score. Using their mPINC survey data, hospitals are given assistance in reviewing the results, determining where the greatest opportunities for improvement are, and developing an improvement plan to address at least two of the dimensions of care. Over the course of one year, hospitals are offered:

  1. Technical assistance related to breastfeeding policy – telephone, face-to-face, electronic messaging;
  2. Resources – desk references such as Hale’s Medications and Mother’s Milk, Continuity of care in Breastfeeding: Best Practices in the Maternity setting; model breastfeeding policy, and a Self Attachment video;
  3. Educational opportunities – funding to send one staff nurse to Certified Lactation Counselor (or comparable) training, Breastfeeding Education for Iowa Communities, a four hour training developed by the Iowa Breastfeeding Coalition, and/or 6 Steps 4 Success training; and
  4. Networking opportunities – Iowa’s Annual Breastfeeding Conference and networking call for all participating hospitals.

The most recent data indicate all participating hospitals demonstrated improvement in several areas including: Labor and delivery practice (an improvement ranging from 3 to 230 percent), Staff Training (63 percent improvement), Breastfeeding Assistance (18 percent improvement), and Structural and Organizational Aspects of Care (94 percent improvement). In addition, staff who became Certified Lactation Counselors are now educating other nurses in their hospital.

To truly make these activities pervasive and sustainable, the IDPH knew it was important to collaborate with key partners with valuable expertise, including:

  • University of Iowa Statewide Perinatal Team – Breastfeeding Guidelines were written and incorporated into the Guidelines for Perinatal Services published by IDPH and distributed by the University of Iowa’s Perinatal Care Program. The Guidelines for Perinatal Services provides the framework to be used in defining and evaluating the level of perinatal services being offered by hospitals.
  • Iowa Breastfeeding Coalition – Breastfeeding Education for Iowa Communities, a four hour training curriculum, is being presented to healthcare communities throughout the state. The training curriculum, based on WIC’s Grow and Glow curriculum, was written as a collaborative effort by IDPH staff and ICBLC members of the coalition.

Over the past five years Iowa hospitals have gone from understanding what the term “Baby Friendly” meant and about the significance of the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, to having one hospital designated as Baby Friendly and many other hospitals in the process of achieving that designation



Lillehoj, C. & Dobson, B. (2012). Implementation of the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative Steps in Iowa Hospitals.