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A woman from Appleton gave birth to a healthy baby in July, and she credits a Wisconsin smoking cessation program for helping to keep her off the cigarettes during her pregnancy.

Heidi Steller, 20, is a new mom to a baby girl, Jayden Grace, and is one of 10,000 women who have participated in First Breath, a program belonging to the Wisconsin Women's Health Foundation, of which former Wisconsin first lady Sue Ann Thompson is founder.

Steller praised First Breath, saying the program referred her to resources, like other moms who had done the program, a quit smoking hot line and pamphlets and reading material on the dangers smoking poses to a baby that really encouraged her not to smoke.

"It's really rewarding. I go to work and then I come home and she's like my life," Steller said of her daughter. She also said it is a blessing to have a child because she had once been diagnosed with cervical cancer and thought she may never have been able to give birth.

Steller was one of the speakers at the First Breath Statewide Meeting at Kalahari Resort Friday. Health care providers offering the First Breath program were present, as was Thompson, who said the program saves the state Medicaid money, but more importantly improves the health of the baby and mother.

She said it's a significant milestone that 10,000 women have participated in First Breath since it began in 2001.

"It means so much at so many different levels," Thompson said.

The health care providers who relay the dangers of smoking to expectant mothers are volunteers and include staff at private clinics as well as at public health departments. There is no income limit for mothers to enroll in the free program that is offered with prenatal care at more than 100 First Breath sites in 70 counties in the state.

According to a news release from First Breath, smoking puts a baby at risk of pre-term membrane rupture, placental abruption, placenta previa, stillbirth, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, cleft palates and lips, childhood cancers, respiratory and behavioral issues and death.

The rate of women who say they smoke while pregnant is 2 percent higher than the national rate. In Wisconsin, 15 percent of pregnant women said they smoked.

First Breath reports that out of the 10,000 women who tried the program, about 35 percent, or 3,500 women, quit smoking.

Linda Doherty is a public health nurse for the Sauk County Health Department, one of the sites that offers First Breath, who said she really likes the program.

"If a pregnant woman smokes that is a risk to her baby," Doherty said. "The First Breath program supports us by giving us educational tools that we can give to our clients. They educate us as far as the smoking habits and the effects it has on the human body. They're there for us if we ever have questions. They give us incentives and they collect data," Doherty said.

She said the program collects information about the women, when they started smoking and how many cigarettes a day they currently smoke.

"Of course our goal is to have them quit before the baby is born so that the baby's first breath is smoke free," she said. "So that's where the name comes from."

Doherty does home visits, as well as meets with the women in a clinic.

"Most women, when they find out they're pregnant, they do want to quit," Doherty said. "They want to quit. It's just how strong their determination is to quit."

Doherty said stress and how long a woman has been smoking are factors in how successful they will be in dropping the habit.

"There's a lot of things that determine how effective they're going to be at quitting....But we don't pressure. We don't judge. We simply teach and see if we can encourage them to quit," Doherty said.

As far as savings for the state Medicaid program are concerned, First Breath reports that in 2004 Wisconsin Medicaid paid for 35 percent of the 70,131 births in Wisconsin. And pregnant Wisconsin Medicaid recipients smoke at a high rate of about 30 percent, the organization stated in a news release.

First Breath reports that the program has saved nearly $3 million in neonatal health costs.

Thompson said she wants the program to extend the time it works with mothers for 6 months to a year after giving birth to ensure they don't start smoking again.

"For them to continue off cigarettes is absolutely critical in their recovery from smoking. I know because I smoked for years myself," she said.

Thompson said she smoked and her parents smoked, and they didn't realize how problematic it was.

"But I quit when I was pregnant," she said. "...I can certainly understand these women, the problems, the issues, the stressors of pregnancy and then giving birth and continuing off cigarettes," she said.