Less than two weeks after delivering her daughter, first-time mom Kimberly Larson proudly points out Abigail's rapid weight gain.

Less than two weeks after delivering her daughter, first-time mom Kimberly Larson proudly points out Abigail's rapid weight gain.

"She's a week and a half old, and she's already 7-15," says Larson.

And the newborn Oregonian already is far ahead of the breast-feeding curve. As the U.S. surgeon general issued a call in January to eliminate obstacles to breast-feeding, Oregon's Women Infants and Children program celebrated the state's status as the No. 1 breast-feeding state in the country. In 2009, Jackson County WIC clients exceeded the statewide mark of 91 percent who start out nursing.

"Oregon's always been near the top," says Debbie Mote-Watson, the county's WIC coordinator. "It's been a priority."

The county health department and local health care providers offer broad support for lactation with hospital- and clinic-based programs, as well as midwife and peer counseling. A La Clinica patient, Larson met with its lactation support staff the day she and Abigail were released from postpartum hospital care.

"The baby's a beginner, and mom's a beginner," says Annie Sporer, a maternal-child health case manager for La Clinica.

La Clinica Women's Health Center in Medford schedules initial lactation appointments for all parents of newborns and offers walk-in lactation consultation for postpartum patients every weekday for two hours. The service is promoted through La Clinica's new CenteringPregnancy groups, which Larson attended throughout her pregnancy.

"I learned a lot that I probably wouldn't have learned," says Larson, 19.

After some initial pain, which she understood to be normal, Larson says she is feeding Abigail comfortably. But mom and daughter will continue meeting with Sporer for the next month to gain confidence and stave off any problems on the advice of Larson's WIC caseworker. WIC bases its levels of nutrition assistance on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that babies get breast milk exclusively for six months (no water, formula or solids) and continue breast-feeding for at least a year.

Local WIC clients also far surpass national averages with 67 percent of its mothers breast-feeding. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control 2010 Breastfeeding Report Card, released in December, only 43 percent of mothers were still nursing at six months, just 22 percent at a year. By 2020, the government hopes to raise the rate of babies exclusively breast-fed for six months to about 25 percent.

"The most frequent reason mamas stop is they think they don't have enough milk," says Mote-Watson.

But other factors contribute, with nipple pain, engorged breasts and problems with the baby's tongue often cited. Lactation specialists like Sporer are ready with techniques to address these issues, as well as plenty of encouragement.

"Some women don't have a frame of reference for what 'OK' is," says Sporer. "If the baby isn't latched properly, it's going to cause pain."

And previous experience breast-feeding is no guarantee of subsequent success. La Clinica patient Laura Baltazar was surprised to feel pain while nursing newborn Miranda after relatively pain-free experiences with two older children.

La Clinica staff taught Baltazar, 32, to massage the milk through her tissue and to wait until Miranda's mouth was open wide before bringing her to the breast. After just one consultation, Baltazar says feeding was less painful.

Although using breast pumps is common among nursing women, Sporer says studies show that women who exclusively pump milk produce less. And breast-feeding promotes infant brain development, not to mention the maternal bond, she says.

"It's actually more complicated to breast-feed than to bottle-feed, and that's a good thing."

Even if some women have to supplement formula, says Sporer, it's preferable to use a tube-fed system that dispenses at the nipple, so the infant simultaneously gets formula with breast milk and benefits from suckling. Breast-fed babies, according to numerous studies, suffer fewer illnesses, including diarrhea, earaches and pneumonia, because breast milk contains antibodies that help fend off infections. They're also less likely to develop asthma, or even to become fat later in childhood.

Simply weighing a baby after nursing demonstrates the success of breast-feeding, says Mote-Watson, explaining that WIC allows clients to drop in and weigh their babies. The county's WIC office holds two breast-feeding classes per month and refers nursing mothers to its own peer counselors, as well as La Leche League of Southern Oregon, which meets in Ashland, Medford, Grants Pass, Rogue River, Murphy and Williams.

For more information, call WIC at 541-774—8203. Find a La Leche League group at www.lllusa.org/web/SouthernOregon.html.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.