Jeff Schnaufer | First 5 LA Writer & Editor
Dr. Lynne Ellison knows a thing or two about babies.
In her job as the medical director of the pediatric hospitalists at Antelope Valley Hospital (AVH), Dr. Ellison oversees a staff of pediatricians who take care of hospitalized children and healthy full-term newborns delivered each year at AVH, which has the only emergency department approved for pediatrics and inpatient pediatrics within a 50-mile-radius.
Then, in 2019, she became pregnant with her first child. During the last trimester, she visited a community Baby Expo with a sign-up booth for a free, voluntary program at AVH offered to expectant and new mothers: Welcome Baby, First 5 LA’s signature home visiting program.
“I signed up for the Welcome Baby Program more out of curiosity and to understand the services that we offer to the families of newborns at AVH,” she recalled. “But let me tell you, I was blown away by the program and the services that they provide.” Offered at 14 hospitals in Los Angeles County, Welcome Baby includes prenatal and postpartum home-based visits, as well as a hospital visit at the time of the child’s birth. Expectant and new mothers are visited by a nurse or professional home visitor (called a parent coach). This person provides information on positive parenting, child health and development, insurance coverage, breastfeeding and improving home safety, as well as links to any needed community services.
(Editor’s Note – Dr. Ellison’s enrollment in Welcome Baby began in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Since the pandemic began, Welcome Baby has temporarily replaced personal in-home visits with virtual home visits for the foreseeable future. Read more here about how First 5 LA has supported virtual home visiting.)
The first visit with Dr. Ellison’s Welcome Baby parent coach, Avon De Luna, was in September 2019, three weeks before her due date. With her supervisor accompanying her, De Luna recalls standing outside Dr. Ellison’s front door, taking deep breaths to calm herself.
“It was a little nerve-wracking because she was my first pediatrician client in Welcome Baby,” recalled De Luna, who works for Antelope Valley Partners for Health. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’”
After walking into the living room, De Luna shared her anxiety over trying to teach a pediatrician something new about motherhood and newborns.
“She said, ‘No, no. I’m a first-time mom and I don’t know everything,’” De Luna said. “And that’s when I relaxed. She was going to learn from me and I was going to learn from her. And that’s what we did.”
The learning began even before Dr. Ellison left home to deliver her baby at AVH. De Luna shared a few techniques that can help with labor and contractions and made some suggestions for what to pack in her hospital bag: comfortable clothes, long phone power cords and brightly-colored pillow cases to distinguish hers from hospital pillows.
Dr. Ellison laughed at the memory. “One of the things I had not thought about was what to pack in my hospital bag.”
Three weeks after the October 2019 birth of her daughter, Josephine, Dr. Ellison was discovering one aspect of motherhood that was anything but funny: breastfeeding.
While low milk supply is normal immediately after birth — as it takes a few days for the full milk supply to come in — Dr. Ellison recalled: “I struggled initially with prolonged, delayed milk supply and with a painful latch onto the breast. I was almost reaching my breaking point. Feeling like giving up and switching to formula.”
Then De Luna, whom co-workers call “The Booby Whisperer” for her breastfeeding acumen, arrived for Dr. Ellison’s Welcome Baby appointment. She evaluated the baby’s latch and provided Dr. Ellison with tips and words of encouragement.
De Luna recalls Dr. Ellison’s grateful reaction: “‘Oh my gosh, where have you been?’” “I kept going and kept trying and kept working at it,” Dr. Ellison said. “Avon also plugged me in with a weekly breastfeeding support group that was available by phone and text message to give me advice and recommendations. I mean, how cool is that?”
The ability to connect remotely and receive in-home help with breastfeeding through Welcome Baby was particularly crucial for the pediatrician, who had a C-section and was unable to drive to a primary care office for lactation support. That same challenge is faced by many families in the Antelope Valley who face transportation problems, Dr. Ellison noted.
“Everyone thinks that breastfeeding is very easy and just comes naturally. But in reality, a lot of women struggle with breastfeeding, with poor latching and low milk supply. I was one of the women that struggled,” she said. “With Welcome Baby, you have a nurse and a coach watch you breastfeed in your home. The bottom line is I owe a lot of credit to the Welcome Baby team for that early help and support. I was able to make it to my goal of breastfeeding for one year.”
Dr. Ellison was also impressed by De Luna’s introduction of developmentally-appropriate play activities as her baby grew.
“She provided a ton of examples you can be doing with your baby — nursery rhymes, playing peek-a-boo, blowing kisses, patty cake — ways to promote developmental play,” Dr. Ellison said. “It was a nice reinforcement as a pediatrician of what types of activities I can be doing with Josephine over the course of her infancy. They became a part of our normal routine.”
The sharing of information went both ways. For instance, an early conversation about baby food.
“We say to start them off on the baby cereal, how to offer it and look out for allergies, and how to introduce fruits and vegetables after three days,” De Luna recalled. “Then she explained that it is important to remember incorporating meat or other foods that provide iron and zinc, which infants are often lacking, in conjunction with fruits and vegetables. She wasn’t correcting me. She just wanted me to have the correct information.”
As a pediatrician, Dr. Ellison was impressed by the wealth and accuracy of information for new families.
“There is a lot of misinformation on the internet and from other sources. It is paramount that we provide families with accurate information,” she said. “I was very impressed and comforted. The materials we were providing families through Welcome Baby were accurate and evidence-based. That’s a big takeaway as a pediatrician.”
Other family members responded positively to the information from Welcome Baby as well, including Dr. Ellison’s husband, Chris Taylor, an Air Force pilot.
“I remember after the two-month appointment, Avon provided a list of baby safety things that you should have in the house. I shared a piece of paper with my husband that included safety items that families should consider buying,” Dr. Ellison recalled. “He went on a buying frenzy — bought baby gates, the outlet covers, the handle covers — everything that she needed for these vulnerable times.” The program even gave rise to a touch of envy from her sister, who was two-and-a-half months behind Dr. Ellison in her own pregnancy.
“My sister was so envious of this program,” Dr. Ellison said. “She didn’t have those types of resources where she lived.”
That envy was quickly replaced by gratitude as Dr. Ellison shared what she learned from Welcome Baby with her sister on Facetime calls.
And while Dr. Ellison and De Luna have concluded their Welcome Baby visits, their unusual collaboration continues on a more professional basis. The two work together on a local breastfeeding coalition, where Dr. Ellison was invited to be the physician ambassador. On a broader scale, the good doctor is promoting the Welcome Baby program at AVH, where she said more than 80 percent of patients seen by her staff of pediatricians are Medi-Cal beneficiaries, many of whom struggle with poor support systems, food insecurity and insufficient transportation.
“Many people don’t realize the types of resources we have here in L.A. County. It’s my goal to promote these programs,” she said.
In the end, the pediatrician-turned-first-time mom was happy to say that Welcome Baby taught her a new thing or two about helping babies — and their families — thrive. “Welcome Baby helps children to hit their true potential,” Dr. Ellison said. “That’s what I’m learning. They come into your home and work around your schedule — that’s what I found mind-blowing. You have someone you can go to about anything having to do with your children. There is no better service than this.”