Healthy baby

Innovative program helps young moms and their children get off to a good start in life

Women making food at the Healthy Baby program.
Healthy Baby Community Support Program participants prepare a meal at the start of a session. From left: Jessica Houle, public health nurse Zippy Shivachi, childminder Amy Sinclair, Shaina Zabinsky, and home economist Susan Wehrle.
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Graduation day

Healthy Baby Program information

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2017

It’s just after 1 p.m. and the Indian & Métis Friendship Centre is buzzing.

In the kitchen, a group of women are cutting up some onions and peppers in preparation for making a large tray of mini-pizzas.

Over in an adjoining room, kids are playing with some toys or just fooling around having fun while their parents put away their parkas and boots.

A quick look around indicates that about a dozen people have made their way to the Friendship Centre on this day. Most are new moms and their children, or moms-to-be, but there are other family members here as well, lending a family-like atmosphere to the gathering.   

And that, of course, is exactly what the Healthy Baby Community Support Program is designed to be – a welcoming place where young moms and moms-to-be can come to share their experiences of pregnancy and motherhood and learn about health issues, such as prenatal and postnatal nutrition, breastfeeding and parenting.

For Barb Jacobs, the program, which is funded under the Manitoba Healthy Baby Program through the provincial government’s Healthy Child Manitoba Office, serves as a source of friendship, education and parenting support. While her toddler plays in the toy room, and her three-month-old infant son is passed from one pair of loving arms to another, Jacobs is able to talk with other moms or discuss issues with the program’s nutritionist or public health nurse.

“I keep coming here because it’s a second home,” says Jacobs, who has been attending the sessions for several years.

Launched in 2001, the Manitoba Healthy Baby Program is part of an effort to improve health outcomes for the province’s most vulnerable children. It is built on the premise that women who receive financial and social support and practical information when they are expecting are more likely to have healthy pregnancies and give birth to healthy babies.

The initiative has two main components: the Healthy Baby Community Support Program and the Manitoba Prenatal Benefit, which provides moms-to-be with a monthly income supplement to help them meet their nutritional needs.

The initiative has been a tremendous success, according to a 2010 report prepared by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy entitled Evaluation of the Manitoba Healthy Baby Program.

Among other things, the report says that women who receive the prenatal benefit, which starts in the second trimester of pregnancy, have fewer low-birth-weight babies and pre-term births, and women who participate in the community support program are much more likely than non-participants to breastfeed their babies. These are both good news items, as babies born pre-term generally are more susceptible to health issues, while babies who are breastfed get protection against infection and disease.

Currently, the Healthy Baby Community Support Program operates in 31 locations in Winnipeg and more than 80 rural communities. The program is free of charge and open to all parents whose children are under the age of one. In Winnipeg, the programs are staffed by co-ordinators, as well as nutritionists and public health nurses, who are on hand to offer participants advice and informal learning experiences about pregnancy, parenting and infant development.

Program participants are welcome to bring their partners or other family members with them, and can also take advantage of on-site childminding for their older children. They are also eligible to receive milk coupons and bus tickets to assist them with transportation to and from the program. 

Susan Wehrle, a home economist with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, works at three community support programs in the city, including the one at the Friendship Centre.

She says some women attend only once or twice, while others come throughout their pregnancy and throughout their child’s first year of life. Many others, like Jacobs, return to the program every time they are expecting a new child.

“I have come for a refresher course every time I have been pregnant,” says Jacobs, a mother of four. “It’s a way to get out of the house, socialize with others, get together with friends and chit-chat, and it makes me feel good.”

Such positive feelings of support, camaraderie and community are essential to the success of the program and help encourage many of the participants to make positive lifestyle choices both during and after pregnancy.

As Wehrle explains, a typical community support program session at the Indian & Métis Friendship Centre will start with women making a meal together, which usually lends itself to a discussion about healthy eating and nutrition.

On this day, for example, as the women prepare their mini-pizzas, the discussion turns to the importance of using low-sodium tomato sauce for the base. One of the women points out that sodium levels can vary significantly from one product to another. “That’s why it is always important to read the label,” another adds.

Moms holding babies.

Barb Jacobs holds her son, Liam, while Shaina Zabinsky holds Barb’s other son, Zayn.

The women are also concerned about the price of food, trading information about where to get the best deals on groceries.  

Later on, the group gathers in a circle to talk about the importance of breastfeeding. Chrissy Hansen, who co-ordinates the program at the Indian & Métis Friendship Centre, leads the conversation, supported by public health nurse Zippy Shivachi, who is ready to answer any and all questions. The duo employs a variety of props to generate discussion about how breastfeeding an infant can enhance the child’s health and well-being.

“The props are a practical way of communicating with the parents,” explains Shivachi.

A small carving of a baby nestled in a mother’s arms, for example, prompts Hansen to remind the women in attendance that breastfeeding gives them incomparable one-on-one quality time with their infants and helps them create the special mother-child bond.

“When the women hear others talking about breastfeeding, it makes it seem very doable,” Hansen says. They realize that breastfeeding is not difficult and it has many benefits. Indeed, studies show that breastfed babies have less risk of developing an assortment of health issues and are less likely to have allergies. Families also save money when they do not have to buy infant formula.

And many of the pregnant women attending the community support program sessions do go on to breastfeed their infants when they hear other moms talking about the ease and benefits of doing so. “One of our success stories,” adds Hansen, “is a mom who had her third baby and hadn’t breastfed the first two, but now is and is doing it openly.”

For many participants, the community support program sessions are their sole source of support during their entire pregnancy, says Tamara Hes, a policy consultant with the Healthy Child Manitoba Office.

“I had one participant come to a group I had every week and wouldn’t ever take a holiday,” says Hes, noting that she used to help run a community support program. “She would come to every single group because she said it saved her life,” she says.

Approximately 4,500 expecting or new mothers, ranging in age from teens to over 40, attend the Healthy Baby Community Support Program each year. “Anyone can come,” says Hes, “but by the neighbourhood, the choice of location and bus access, the program is really trying to be accessible to those who could benefit from it most.” 

The nature of the program is in line with the Region’s emphasis on health equity, a policy that stresses the importance of working to ensure everyone in the community is able to maximize their health and well-being. 

“Everything is run through an equity lens,” says Hes, “so when you are doing an ice breaker, for example, it would always be something that is inclusive, like how did you feel when your baby first kicked? There’s no wrong answer. It’s about what would bring people together rather than divide them.”

The community support programs operate year-round, mostly on a weekly basis and mostly during the day, and are offered in schools, community centres and churches. Many are led by a peer who may have once attended a program.

Hansen is a case in point. She first attended a community support program when she was expecting her first child. “I first attended a group 15 years ago,” she says, “and then after doing that I became the childminder there.”

After witnessing the positive impact the program was having on young mothers, Hansen signed up to become a group assistant, eventually taking over the Friendship Centre group four years ago.

Like all of the community support programs, Hansen’s group is grassroots, holistic, flexible and community-based, in order to ensure that women and babies in the neighbourhood have a specific point of connection. But the group discussion is a little more informal than some of the others, because she knows the neighbourhood and her clientele well. She also tends to let the group guide the daily topic discussion with questions.

“Chrissy always makes you feel welcome,” says Val Spence, a young mom who first attended the group seven years ago and then returned a year ago when she was pregnant with her daughter, who is now five months old. “It’s a really nice set-up,” Spence continues.

“I meet people, we talk about our experiences, and it doesn’t seem like we run out of things to talk about. We learn a lot.”

While most of that learning comes from informal conversation, there are also a variety of teaching kits available on-site to provide participants with specific information on such topics as introducing solid foods to babies, vaccinations, how to dress a baby for winter, domestic violence, and, of course, breastfeeding.

“The kits are not intended to provide all the answers to a topic,” says Hes, “but they do provide the basics.”
When participants want or need more information on specific topics, the Region’s professional staff will provide guidance and support as well as a referral to other support services in the community.

“Chrissy also tells us about other programs in the community and keeps us up to date on what is happening in the neighbourhood,” Spence adds.  

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

Wave: January / February, 2017

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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