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Penobscot Nation program aims to promote breast-feeding as step toward improving health

Posted July 17, 2012, at 4:04 p.m.
Naya Mitchel sits with her child Benally while listening to a seminar about breast feeding on Indian Island on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Mitchell will act as a peer counselor and take the information she learns back to other members of her tribe.
Naya Mitchel sits with her child Benally while listening to a seminar about breast feeding on Indian Island on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Mitchell will act as a peer counselor and take the information she learns back to other members of her tribe. Buy Photo
Alexandra Francis breast feeds her child Silas while listening to a seminar about breast feeding on Indian Island on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Francis will act as a peer counselor, educating others in her tribe on the benefits of breast feeding.
Alexandra Francis breast feeds her child Silas while listening to a seminar about breast feeding on Indian Island on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Francis will act as a peer counselor, educating others in her tribe on the benefits of breast feeding. Buy Photo
Lactation counselor Evelyn Conrad speaks to people gathered at Indian Island about breast feeding benefits.
Lactation counselor Evelyn Conrad speaks to people gathered at Indian Island about breast feeding benefits. Buy Photo

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Breast is best. That’s the message a group of Penobscot Indian Nation mothers and grandmothers will be sharing with future mothers and tribe members as part of a training effort to reduce obesity and diabetes on the island.

How infants eat in their first months and years plays an important role in how they develop and how they eat as children and young adults, according to Andrea Mietkiewicz, an Old Town midwife who also serves as the Penobscot Nation Health Department’s maternal and child health coordinator.

Mietkiewicz said the program, which started with a session on Tuesday morning, aims to train tribal mothers and grandmothers as peer counselors, who will teach and promote breast-feeding to other parents and expecting parents within the tribe. She said there are between 12 and 20 births to Penobscot Nation mothers per year.

“It almost seems natural that breast-feeding is best because it’s how we’re designed,” said Alexandra Francis of Bangor, a tribal member who attended Tuesday’s session.

Participants in the program are encouraged to feed their infants breast milk with no supplements for their baby’s first six months.

Evelyn Conrad, a lactation counselor, taught the mothers who attended the event the proper method of breast-feeding and read through long lists of breast-feeding benefits and diseases it is believed to decrease the chances of developing later in life, including Crohn’s disease, diabetes and leukemia.

Breast-feeding also is far less expensive than feeding using formulas or supplements, she said.

When a baby is born, its stomach is about the size of a marble and grows to hold about 1 ounce of food within the first few weeks of growth.

Because of the small size of an infant’s stomach, it’s easy to overfeed.

Parents who feed their babies formula will sometimes give them more than they need.

“We have gotten used to stuffing ourselves and it’s showing in our health,” Mietkiewicz said.

Stemming that overfeeding trend should start at the earliest possible opportunity, she argued.

Mothers who breast-feed their infants tend to provide more, smaller feedings during the course of a day, according to Conrad. That sort of “grazing” diet is healthier for all ages and gets infants to the right start early in life, she said.

The breast-feeding program is funded by a $20,000 grant from the National Library of Medicine and awarded by United South and Eastern Tribes Inc.

For mothers at Tuesday’s session, one of the most important reasons for why they chose to breast-feed was because of the bond it forms between mother and child.

“It feels like it’s what I’m supposed to do with my baby,” said Naya Mitchell of Indian Island, who attended Tuesday’s meeting with her 7-week-old son, Benally. She said she looked forward to sharing advice and advocating for breast-feeding in her community.

Filmmaker Nicolle Littrell is documenting the sessions and will produce a video to be posted on several websites, including those of the National Library of Medicine, the Penobscot Nation and the Indian Health Center.

Two more breast-feeding sessions are scheduled for August. The first will be held 9-11 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 9, at the Nick Sapiel Building on Indian Island. The second is set from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10, at the Penobscot Tribal Council Chambers conference room.

Mietkiewicz encouraged grandmothers to attend sessions as well because knowledge about breast-feeding has changed over the past 20 years.

For information, call Mietkiewicz at 817-7420.

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