Mississippi’s infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the nation.
Several Delta counties, Sunflower included, have some of the highest rates of infant mortality in the state,
According to a December 2016 Mississippi Data Project report, the infant mortality rate among African Americans is twice the rate of whites (12.7 per 1,000 babies versus 6.3 per 1,000 babies), and that is just one issue that expectant mothers and infants face in the region.
Indianola-based South Sunflower County Hospital is on a mission to help bring those numbers down and to increase the quality of life for mothers and babies in the area.
Last week, the hospital received the Baby Friendly designation from Baby Friendly USA, the United States’ accrediting arm and national authority for the World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund’s Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative. “We are extremely excited about being designated as a Baby-Friendly USA Hospital,” said SSCH CEO Courtney Phillips. “The staff and community really came together and worked hard to accomplish this designation. Without everyone’s support, this would not have been possible, and I would like to thank everyone for their continued support of our hospital as we continue to strive to bring quality healthcare to our community.”
SSCH is one of just three Mississippi hospitals that have achieved the designation, and it is the first rural hospital in the state to do so. University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and Forrest General Hospital in Hatteisburg are the other two.
SSCH is by far the smallest of three.
There are currently 498 hospitals nationwide that are classified as Baby Friendly.
Each one, including SSCH, had to endure a rigorous years-long process in order to earn the designation.
Indianola’s hospital began its journey toward being Baby Friendly in 2015.
“We wanted to provide every patient with education regarding the benefits of breastfeeding, rooming in and skin-to-skin and allow them to make their own decisions,” said Betsy Dawson, nurse practitioner and Baby Friendly task force leader.
Dr. Katherine Patterson served as lead physician on the Baby Friendly task force. Michelle Smith, Mackenzie Cousino SSCH Chief Clinical Officer Holly Sparks also served on the task force, and Jackie Lambert served as Health Department liaison for the group.
Becoming a Baby Friendly hospital is no easy task.
It took three years for SSCH to achieve this designation, but Dawson and Patterson said that it has taken some hospitals even longer.
“It’s a very long process,” Patterson said.
Patterson said SSCH was fortunate to have received help from Mississippi CHAMPS (Mississippi Communities and Hospitals Advancing Maternity Practices).
In order to become Baby Friendly, a hospital must go through a four-step process that includes Discovery, Development, Dissemination and Designation, Patterson said.
The hospital must also implement the 10 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding.
“Some were much more difficult than others,” Dawson said.
SSCH put in its application for the designation in November. By January, the hospital had its interview. Last week, the staff was notified the facility is Baby Friendly.
“There was a little bit of screaming going on,” Patterson said of when the news broke.
A New Era Born at SSCH
The time and extra work put into to earning the Baby Friendly designation was well worth it to Patterson, who regularly delivers babies at the hospital.
She has seen first-hand the negative outcomes associated with unhealthy pregnancies, and she hopes the policies put into place as a result of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative will help prevent those outcomes in the future.
“Mississippi is the poorest in health,” Patterson said. “Breastfeeding decreases obesity, hypertension and some cancers...Maybe our rates will be lower.”
Patterson and Dawson said that being Baby Friendly is not just about breastfeeding. It’s about prenatal preventative care as well, such as pregnant women taking the correct vitamins and making it to regular appointments.
So far, the policies have yielded results.
Patterson said Sunflower County currently has the highest breastfeeding rate in the Delta, and she said there has been a 23 percent increase in the breastfeeding rate among WIC (Women, Infants & Children Food & Nutrition Service) recipients.
“If we can change one life, then we’ve changed two lives,” Patterson said.
She hopes the results will continue to compound annually.
As for the designation, the work is just starting for SSCH.
“It’s continuous,” Patterson said. “We’ll continue to evaluate and do postpartum and antepartum audits.”
For Dawson and Patterson, Baby Friendly is more than a designation. It’s an assurance that when babies are born in Sunflower County, those births occur with the highest level of education given to the parents as possible in this region.