CHEO lactation pilot program a victory for breastfeeding advocates

A new pilot program at CHEO is testing out what difference it could make if the hospital hired a full-time lactation consultant to help parents feed their infants and toddlers while they're in hospital.

Hospital testing what it would be like to have a full-time lactation consultant on staff

CHEO nurse Catherine Charbonneau (right) provides breastfeeding support to Sumona Di Tota and her baby on Dec. 16, 2020. The registered nurse is helping lead a new pilot program at the hospital to see whether it could use a full-time lactation consultant on staff. (CHEO)

A new pilot program at CHEO is testing out what difference it could make if the hospital hired a full-time lactation consultant to help parents feed their infants and toddlers while they're in hospital.

Currently, the hospital does not have a dedicated lactation consultant, although several nurses have the training.

"This pilot project is an amazing step forward for CHEO," said Stephanie Gluscic, a registered nurse and lactation consultant as well as one of the founders of the Facebook group Lactation Support For CHEO, which has been calling for full-time breastfeeding support at the hospital for three years.

"As a group, we really hope that it will spark an actual staff position for a lactation consultant at CHEO," said Gluscic who is not affiliated with CHEO.

"I think that [the pilot] means that CHEO is acknowledging that there is a bit of a blind spot in terms of providing care for parents."

Supporting breastfeeding at CHEO

Gluscic said her group surveyed its supporters in the fall and found that many who had babies in the neonatal intensive care unit had positive breastfeeding support but once they graduated to the in-patient side or if their child was admitted through the emergency room, they felt less supported and sometimes pressured into feeding their babies formula.

Catherine Charbonneau, a registered nurse in CHEO's neonatal intensive care unit and a certified lactation consultant, is leading the pilot pilot program at the hospital to see whether more support could help improve outcomes for families. 

"We are all about getting babies fed and making sure that we can support breastfeeding along the way," she said.

CHEO nurse Catherine Charbonneau said she sees breastmilk as a medicine that can both nourish babies but also help them build their immune systems, providing a life-long benefit to the baby. (CHEO)

The six-week trial officially started on Dec. 7 and Charbonneau and other staff at the hospital with lactation consultant training are sharing shifts from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Saturday.

Typically their patients, who range in age from newborns to toddlers, have either physical feeding problems like vocal paralysis or airway issues, are fighting a serious infection or are undergoing a procedure like heart surgery, which interrupts their ability to feed at the breast.

She and the other consultants help figure out how best to provide human milk to the infants — which may mean setting up a mom with a breast pump, providing tips on increasing milk supply or helping moms to transition from pump to feeding their baby directly.

"Nobody will be surprised that lactating support is very well received, it can be a really stressful experience, especially with an ill infant," said Charbonneau.

Human milk as medicine

So far during the pilot, Charbonneau said the on-duty lactation consultant sees between 10 and 12 patients, which makes for a busy day. Still, she said the experience has been a positive and rewarding one for staff taking part.

"We think of human milk as medicine," said Charbonneau.

"It actually coats the gut and those antibodies and all of those nutrients and everything that's in that milk helps to build that natural flora of the gut and that's related to life-long health."

While baby formula is still used at the hospital and staff respect the choices of parents not to breastfeed or inability to breastfeed, Charbonneau said so far there's sufficient demand at the hospital to keep a full-time lactation consultant busy all day.

"This is something that families have been asking for and now we're seeing the benefits and the impacts from this," she said.

About the Author

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at

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