Q: The hospital where I plan to deliver says it is “baby-friendly.” What does that mean?

A: The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative is a worldwide program introduced by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF in 1991. It’s a global effort to improve the care of pregnant women, mothers and newborns by protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding.

Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah recently became one of the first hospitals in the region to embark on the three-year journey to earning Baby-Friendly USA designation.

To become a Baby-Friendly Hospital, organizations must meet 10 breastfeeding standards established by WHO and UNICEF. These include helping mothers start breastfeeding soon after birth, allowing the newborn to room in with the mother in the hospital and encouraging unrestricted breastfeeding.

The goal of the program is to increase breastfeeding rates and improve public health.

Studies show that breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from respiratory infections and are less likely to be obese as children.

Women who breastfeed have lower risks for breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes and a myriad of other serious health conditions. Increasing the number of mothers who breastfeed could prevent millions of child and maternal deaths each year.

Experts recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.

When solid food is added to the baby’s diet, he should continue to receive breast milk, if possible, for the next six to 18 months.

Initiation of breastfeeding in the United States is significantly lower than in some Northern European and African countries. Within the U.S., women of Caucasian and Hispanic ethnicities are more likely to initiate nursing than African-American women.

Simple practices such as putting the baby skin-to-skin with the mother and starting breastfeeding during the first hour of life, eliminating free formula from the nursery, and training staff members to help and encourage mothers to start nursing are a few ways to increase the number of mothers initiating nursing.

“The Golden Hour” is an important part of being a Baby-Friendly Hospital. During the first hour after birth – the Golden Hour – babies who are medically stable are placed on their mother’s abdomen. The mother’s body has the unique ability to regulate the baby’s temperature, either warming or cooling the infant, during this period of time.

Within the Golden Hour, babies should breastfeed for the first time. The mother’s milk will not be in for a few days but her body will produce colostrum, or “first milk,” that contains important antibodies that protect her baby.

Even if your hospital does not have the Baby-Friendly designation, talk to your obstetrician about her recommendations on breastfeeding. Find out what support systems your hospital has in place to improve your chances of successfully breastfeeding.

Dr. Joanne Price Williamson is an obstetrician/gynecologist at Memorial Health University Physicians – Provident OB/GYN Associates in Okatie.