When lactation consultant Veronica Haywood went to the home of an 18-year-old woman, she intended to address the new mother’s concerns about her milk production. But the registered nurse and co-founder of Latched, a local nonprofit that offers in-home lactation consultation services to minority and low-income women free of charge, immediately sensed another, more dangerous problem.

After giving birth, the mother had been sent home from the hospital with a fever and told that was normal. Taking pain relievers and fever reducers masked additional symptoms, and Haywood determined that the young mother was at immediate risk of developing sepsis.

“I called the doctor right away, and the mother had to undergo immediate surgery” to remove placental fragments remaining from the birth, Haywood said.

The episode showed that not only are women leaving the hospital without basic health information, they also are likely not being educated about breastfeeding, she said.

For the past year, Haywood and Ashley Green, Latched’s co-founders, have been working to increase breastfeeding rates among minority women. Along the way, they have learned that these mothers need more than just breastfeeding assistance.

“As Latched has grown, we have realized that these moms are needing basic health education, parenting skills, parenting support, and information about available resources,” Green said, noting that while many organizations exist to encourage breastfeeding and positive parenting, people don’t always utilize those services.

“We are bringing awareness that there is a racial disparity gap that is growing in the rates of breastfeeding among minority women [in addition] to there being a lack of diversity in lactation professionals,” said Green, who noted that she and Haywood were two of just three black lactation consultants in Bexar County.

“We help all moms who want to breastfeed, but want to raise awareness about minority women and the barriers they have to overcome.”

Of the 1 million women living in Bexar County, about 600,000 are Hispanic and 85,000 are black, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2017. Green said that while Hispanic women initiate breastfeeding at a higher rate, they tend to introduce formula sooner, and that rates of breastfeeding among black and Hispanic woman are lower than their white counterparts.

“We have to address barriers that these women have to overcome, because if we don’t talk openly a mom might not reach out for the help that they need,” Green said, noting common barriers include maternal education, lack of support for breastfeeding, and age of the mother at the time of the child’s birth.

Working with the Nurse Family Partnership at the Children’s Shelter, Latched in one year provided 116 women with in-home lactation consultations, with the majority of appointment requests coming from San Antonio’s Northeast Side, according to Latched data.

“If you look at the closest lactation assistance program in that area, you’ll see it’s more than 20 miles away,” Green said.

The organization also provides breastfeeding assistance and education to high school students, including those in the Northeast, San Antonio, Northside, and Edgewood independent school districts.

“While there is a lot of stigma around teen moms not breastfeeding, we don’t have one teen mom who we have worked with who is not exclusively breastfeeding,” Haywood said. “They are excited to learn about it.”

The pair also leads a breastfeeding class at Alpha Home, a gender-specific drug and alcohol treatment facility, as part of the center’s Family First program for pregnant and parenting women who may be at risk  for substance abuse. The class, which has an average attendance rate of 55 women, is a community outreach program and is not open to women receiving treatment in the facility.

In addition, Green and Haywood provide in-home lactation consulting services to military mothers at Joint Base San Antonio.

To accommodate its growth, Latched will be leaving its shared space at the Children’s Shelter and opening its own office this month. Symbolically, the move is scheduled to occur during Black Breastfeeding Week, which begins Aug. 25.

“The new space will allow us to expand our services and offer doula services, parenting skills workshops, nutrition courses, and infant and child CPR and choking certification classes,” Green said.

When Shalencia Young, 33, gave birth to her daughter Luna last October, she wanted to  breastfeed for at least six months.

“My mom put the pressure on me to do so, saying that women of color often choose not to breastfeed their kids,” Young said. “I wanted to be different and give my daughter the best chance. I told myself if I wouldn’t drink formula [as an infant], she shouldn’t either.”

But around the three-month mark, feedings became increasingly painful and Luna struggled with getting enough to eat. “I wasn’t done [with breastfeeding], but I wasn’t going to continue if it was hurting like that,” Young said.

A friend referred her to Latched. When Haywood arrived for their appointment, she needed less than two minutes to identify the problem: Luna was biting down harder to express milk from a smaller area.

“I was so embarrassed because it was such an easy fix, and I was going to quit,” Young said. “None of my relatives breastfeed. None of my friends breastfeed. Not one single person I know breastfeeds. And despite taking parenting classes, it was still a big struggle.”

The best part of the service, Young said, is that it was free.

The organization accepts donations, which go toward Latched’s current $7,000 annual budget. Haywood and Green have invested their own money to purchase breast pumps, pads, and other nursing accessories to provide to mothers at no cost.

To mark the one-year anniversary of Latched, they are holding a fundraiser so they can continue to offer their services free of charge.

Erica LaHood was referred to Latched by Baby Café, a breastfeeding workshop hosted by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, after she struggled with nursing her son.

“The home aspect of it is much more comfortable,” she said. “The baby is in his element, and you are able to really grasp what you need to do and the changes you want to make without the discomfort of people being in an office room across the way.”

LaHood said that when she gave birth, the hospital encouraged her to breastfeed but sent her home with a bag full of formula. She credits Green’s constant encouragement and tips for helping her breastfeed for just over five and a half months.

After struggling through breastfeeding, her son was diagnosed with a hiatial hernia; doctors said breastfeeding him saved him from more complicated issues because his stomach would have been unable to digest formula, LaHood said.

“Breastfeeding was our miracle for all of the [health] issues our baby faced later,” LaHood said. “Breast milk changes to match what your baby is going through, to help fight whatever it is they are facing,” LaHood said. “Breast milk in itself is some pretty phenomenal stuff.”

While the benefits of breastfeeding will not necessarily be evident from one month to the next, Green said, Latched is working to monitor the impact of breastfeeding on mothers and babies by tracking their health for the next few years.

“When we lower childhood obesity rates, when we reduce asthma, we will be able to see the benefits of breastfeeding across the city,” Haywood said.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.