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SHIPROCK — The Navajo Nation Breastfeeding Coalition held its first face-to-face meeting Friday at the Shiprock Chapter house, and the discussion focused on supporting Navajo mothers who breastfeed.

The members, who previously only met via conference phone calls, said one way to do that is by educating mothers about the Navajo Nation Healthy Start Act, which was enacted in November 2008.

The purpose of the act is to provide places for nursing mothers to breastfeed within workplaces on the Navajo Nation. The law applies to all employers conducting business on the reservation.

The Navajo Nation was among the first tribal nations in the country to enact this type of law, said Amanda Singer, the coalition's coordinator. But there are still a number of people who do not know it exists, she said.

“They do have a right,” she said.

In addition to the Navajo law, laws that support breastfeeding exist at the federal and state levels, and Indian Health Service has a baby-friendly initiative, Singer said. Baby-friendly hospitals have policies and practices that support breastfeeding.

Still, although these laws are in place, compliance remains an issue.

One way the coalition would like to address that is by educating mothers and expecting mothers about their rights to breastfeed at work and in public.

“The more moms know their rights, they’ll be more comfortable,” said Antoinette Kleiner, a lactation consultant at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock.

Another challenge is encouraging working mothers to talk about the law with their employers.

Barb Pratt, a coalition member and lactation consultant at Gallup Indian Medical Center, said there are times when mothers are nervous to ask their employer for accommodations.

Kleiner said there is no harm in asking an employer, and if the employer does not comply, there is support through groups like the coalition.

Other issues the coalition talked about included collaboration with other groups and increasing support to families.

Kleiner has been a coalition member for three years. Through her work at Northern Navajo Medical Center, she know that about 90 percent of Navajo mothers choose to start breastfeeding right after their baby is born.

The challenge, though, is helping women breastfeed for a longer period because the most vulnerable time that mothers stop breastfeeding is between two days from when they leave the hospital to two months, she said. Among babies screened at the hospital, breastfeeding rates fall from 90 percent right after birth to 41 percent at two months old, Kleiner said.

“We have great starting breastfeeding rates. What we’re aiming for is to help moms continue that duration for longer and longer,” Kleiner said.

The coalition, which started in 2009, is funded through a $25,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that is administered by the New Mexico Breastfeeding Task Force

One goal for meetings like the one on Friday is to increase membership and further develop a presence in communities on the Navajo Nation.

Singer said there are about 35 members on the coalition’s mailing list, but only seven are active members.

Ideally, the coalition would like its membership to expand across the Navajo Nation.

Singer said the coalition invites people to join if they have "a passion to make a difference in their communities for breastfeeding families."

For more information, contact the coalition at dinenationbreastfeeding@gmail.com or find them on Facebook under Navajo Nation Breastfeeding Coalition.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-546-4636.

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