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From Cradle to Career, Addressing Infant Feeding as a Tactic in Combatting Childhood Obesity

In New York State, one in every three children is considered obese or overweight. With the obesity epidemic rapidly spreading, the Y has made the commitment to educate kids about healthy lifestyles, model healthy behaviors and cultivate environments that make the healthy choice, the easy choice for all.

With the help of key partners and state-level funding, the Alliance has made significant strides in combatting the childhood obesity epidemic statewide through a variety of training, research opportunities, and grants to local Ys.


Among the many partners is Christine Bozlak, Ph.D., MPH Associate Professor in the Department of Health Policy, Management, and Behavior at the University at Albany School of Public Health. The Alliance began working with Dr. Bozlak in 2013 after receiving a grant through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to help local Ys address childhood obesity.

“From the first time I met Dr. Bozlak, I have been thoroughly impressed with her knowledge and experience in health policy,“ said Kyle Stewart, Executive Director of the Alliance. “That expertise, combined with her research skills and support of the YMCA’s mission, made it a very easy decision for us to partner with her on these important projects.”

Upon the conclusion of the RWJF grant, the New York State YMCA Foundation received a line item in the New York State Budget to support the YMCA’s statewide Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) Standards work. Of that funding, money was allocated to conduct an external evaluation to determine the effectiveness of the state-funded initiative. The Alliance turned to Dr. Bozlak to lead the evaluation. Dr. Bozlak’s findings indicated that YMCAs saw success in the areas of healthier eating and engaging children in increased physical activity.

The Alliance used Dr. Bozlak’s evaluation results to advocate for more state funding to support HEPA. Through their advocacy work, the Alliance has secured a total of $2.1 million in legislative grants since 2015.


When the Alliance began planning for the 2019 HEPA initiative, they immediately reached out to Dr. Bozlak.

“It was clear through Dr. Bozlak’s work on the Pioneering Healthier Communities Grant that more needed to be done to support infant feeding at YMCAs across New York State,” explained Paige Hughes, Director of Healthy Living at the Alliance. “We wanted to be proactive and understand how to better equip our Ys with resources and policies that support breastfeeding mothers and their staff, while simultaneously demonstrating a continued commitment to HEPA.”

With funds from the 2019 HEPA Implementation & Expansion Grant, Dr. Bozlak was provided $20,000 to conduct a pilot intervention study with a small sample of YMCAs. The 18-month study, which launched in January, will use data from previous studies and look at practices to create interventions for a sample of four YMCA Associations across New York State. Four additional YMCAs will serve as the control group and will not receive the intervention until after the study is complete.

“We are conducting an organizational-level study to get an idea of what is feasible to implement at a Y,” said Dr. Bozlak. “This could include anything from training for staff and managers about how to support breastfeeding moms, resources for breastfeeding moms, and physical space such as lactation rooms.”


The Y’s HEPA Infant Feeding Standard encourages adults who work with infants and their families to promote and support exclusive breastfeeding for six months and the continuation of breastfeeding in conjunction with complementary foods for one year or more.

Research shows that breastfeeding is associated with positive health outcomes, including the prevention of obesity, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), ear and respiratory infections, and Type 2 diabetes in children; and Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and breast and ovarian cancer risk reduction in mothers.

Although organizations, like the Y, are mandated by law to accommodate breastfeeding mothers, there can be challenges to implementing organizational-level infant feeding and breastfeeding best practices and policies. Bozlak offered the example of a mother supervising her child swimming at a YMCA pool, but who also has a nursing infant. “Mothers may run into situations where they need to nurse their baby, but there’s no practical and private way to do so,” she said. “If women frequently run into predicaments like this they are more likely to forego breastfeeding, and there are things we can and should do to prevent that.”

By Paige Hughes // Paige is the Director of Healthy Living at the Alliance of NYS YMCAs.