Breastfeeding support groups can be found all over West Michigan, but new mothers are using a number of other tools to help them nourish their young babies.
When her child wouldn't latch properly, a new mother in Grand Rapids grew worried the baby wasn't getting enough milk.
She reached for the most reliable tool she had access to. Not a pump, or a bottle. She picked up the phone, took pictures of her baby and her breast and sent them to lactation counselor Paddy Raschke.
Within moments, the baby was nursing properly. Paddy had assessed the latching issue and directed the young mother to a successful milk delivery over text message.
There are few roles more important than taking care of a new child, and possibly even fewer filled with more uncertainty.
Especially for first-time mothers, the responsibility of nourishing a child for the months following its delivery can be even more arduous than those preceding it. Breastfeeding mothers have no lack of support, especially in West Michigan, but it's how they connect with each other both on and offline that helps spread awareness of that support.
Mothers Reaching Out
Breastfeeding support groups can be found all over West Michigan today. From La Leche League meetings, to hospital-based programs, to Facebook groups. It was actually through this community that Raschke, a mother of two, first found her calling. She kept returning to a support group at St. Mary's for weeks after her nursing challenges had been overcome, hoping to return the same help she had received.
"I wanted to pay back the help I had gotten from others," Raschke says. "That's when it was presented to me as something I could have done as a profession."
Now in her fourth year, Raschke has kept up her lactation counselor certification by providing the governing board of Certified Lactation Counselors with proof of ongoing education. Such certifications last for three years before they have to be updated.
The breastfeeding community isn't isolated from innovation, and while face-to-face experiences may provide the most effective means of assistance, technology greatly amplifies its reach.
"When you're not sitting with someone in person and physically meeting with them, there can be stuff that can be missed," Raschke says. "If it's something that's really obviously simple, like I'm trying to explain to a mother how to compress her breast, or wait for her baby to open wide for a good latch. I feel comfortable handling those things over FaceTime or with a text message."
When Raschke was on the east side of the state visiting family and a new mother in West Michigan couldn't wait for her to show up at a house call, a smartphone was the perfect solution. Web-based telecommunications have been revolutionizing the healthcare industry for years. Teledocs and virtual checkups are being implemented in medical systems across the world, and for breastfeeding mothers, Skype or FaceTime are proving equally important.
Community of Support
Not all mothers who are worried about their child's nutrition have Raschke's phone number, but that doesn't mean they don't have access to a number of other helpful resources to help them better understand how to meet those needs.
Raschke herself facilitates the roughly 1,400-member Grand Rapids Breastfeeding Support Group on Facebook, where women from around the area are welcome to join and share insights and experiences. She administrates the page with a handful of other women she met though the St. Mary's support group.
"We wanted to continue to keep in touch and so we started this Facebook page and slowly started to add in our friends, and they added their friends, and we said let's open this up to everybody," Raschke says. "And that's not even the only Facebook page that's out there in the West Michigan area."
Toshia Gustafson feeds her son, Ezra, with the support of her breastfeeding group at Cherry Street Park.
The opportunity for mothers to join others in support is an important feature of online groups. While not technically part of Raschke's job as a lactation counselor at Simply Born in the East Hills neighborhood, she's able to offer insight in threads where key questions aren't being answered on the Facebook page, but that still can't replace the connection that forms when two new mothers share their experiences.
"That is invaluable, and in a lot of cases, better than you could get from a lactation counselor or someone else," she says. "You're getting support from a woman who has a baby two weeks older than you and says, 'Yeah, I remember I was doing that two weeks ago too, but it will pass, I promise you.' The mom-to-mom support I think is what's most important."
La Leche League meetings offer just such a space for mothers to support their fellow breastfeeding mothers. Like Raschke, Raquel Knack, an accredited La Leche League leader for the last 16 years, dedicated herself to assisting breastfeeding mothers after the same group helped her through nursing her first child.
"I began attending when I was pregnant at the recommendation of my Bradley Method Childbirth instructor, and I found the mothers' knowledge and experience invaluable," says Knack. "Once I was on my way with nursing my first child, I knew I wanted to help other mothers who might be struggling with breastfeeding."
Erin Wiseman-Parkin feeds her children, James and Rory.
Along with college courses and communications workshops at La Leche League conferences, Knack says the organization helped her gain compassion and perspective towards the mothers she now works with.
"It's really about listening," she says. "Many mothers instinctively know what the problem or issue is and how to resolve it. If you really listen to them, you will easily see the answers and how to help them best."
From Knack's point of view, obstetricians, gynecologists and pediatricians are "doing a great job promoting breastfeeding to pregnant women," but the support new mothers can find in La Leche League leaders, responding to questions over Facebook, text message, phone call and email, is often lacking in those professional institutions.
"Some leaders also do home visits," Knack says. "Many leaders will often strike up conversations with pregnant women asking 'So are you planning on breastfeeding?' and share information about meetings and other community resources."
La Leche League currently meets Thursday mornings from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Trinity Methodist Church in Eastown.
Courage and Encouragement
Groups like La Leche League exist solely to provide mothers with information on breastfeeding and connect them to other resources that may help, like fellow mothers. Knack says there's little outreach or marketing involved, although working to fight the stigma of breastfeeding in public often spreads their message in a positive way.
Breastfeeding can be a substantial challenge for new mothers, and outdated or misdirected policies further complicate the process by casting unnecessary shame on them. Over a century of sexually-driven advertising and media have redefined women's breasts as taboo, Knack says, and made breastfeeding in public an uncomfortable experience for some.
"And when people see a young child or baby attached to a woman's breast, they don't know how to feel about it or how they feel about their children seeing it," she says. "I think if we were able to promote breasts as also a way to nourish and grow babies, there would be less struggle in the hearts and minds of people in our communities."
Misinformation and cultural stigma have contributed to the confusion of many new mothers, often wondering how they will keep their babies fed every 90 minutes or more in the first few weeks. Whether or not they will even be able to produce enough milk is one of the most common questions breastfeeding mothers have, and according to doula, midwife-in-training, and mother of 12, Laurie Vance, one that stems from standards set by formula companies, and accepted by hospitals.
It's often not that a woman is producing too little milk, but that the nutritional value and composition between breastmilk and formula is markedly different, yet feeding requirements are skewed toward the latter. Women may feel they can't make enough milk based on information from their care providers or their moms, or some that Vance believes is purposefully put out there.
"We see the size of a bottle that's given to a baby in a hospital and it's about 4 ounces, but babies don't need four ounces until they're about 2 and a half to 3 months old," she says. "When a mom is nursing, and the baby is hungry again in like an hour and a half, if she's told that her baby is supposed to wait a full four hours, then she assumes that she is not making enough milk."
Jess Hilzey bonds with Marguerite while breastfeeding.
Vance gave birth to her first child 34 years ago, but knew she wanted to work with nursing women well before that date.
"When I was 16, one of my older sisters came over and I remember watching her breastfeed her baby," she says. "Then, supporting other women doing doula work was a natural outcome when we were living in Illinois."
Out of hospital midwifery is against the law in the state of Illinois, but Vance's local network of doulas, offering non-medical support before, during, and after delivery, was yet able to practice in and out of the hospital. In Grand Rapids, as well as many other cities in Michigan, midwifery is a legal and flourishing practice. Both midwives and doulas are permitted to accompany mothers as advocates during delivery.
"A lot of it came from women who wanted to have a better success with breastfeeding," she says. "Back in the day it was standard practice to separate mom and baby. I was saying to women, well if I could just come to the end of your birth and I could keep you and baby together because then there would be an advocate and they'll be less likely to ignore you."
Along with advocating for young mothers, Vance reassures them that a human body that can grow a baby and give birth to it is also just as equipped to make the right amount of milk and support it through nursing, as well.
"The first six to eight weeks can be pretty intense, so I try to encourage moms to not think about how long they can do it, but to just get through today," Vance says. "I try to get moms to get out of their brains, their logical brains. It's a similar concept with labor. If a mom is thinking too much, if she's not in the right part of her brain, labor is not going to unfold the way it's designed to.
"Breastfeeding is a very hormonally-driven and primal relationship," she continues. "If moms are thinking about it too much, they can get in the way of just allowing it to happen."
The Makeup of Milk
Along with the backing of scientific discovery, breastfeeding is no longer just an accepted practice, but an encouraged one. As Vance maintains, the nutritional value of breastmilk is of great interest, but it's by no means the most profound feature of the substance.
Hundreds of different compounds have been identified in breast milk, some even claimed to offer a cure for cancer. Much less impressive, in 2010, the author of this article was fortunate enough to try hand-churned breast milk ice cream, and in 2016, subjected to a topical application of breastmilk to remedy an irritated eye. In both cases, the results were positive.
"Most mammal milk contains around 30 to 50 different sugar molecules," Kate Horowitz writes for Mental Floss. "Human milk has more than 200. This complexity is both fascinating and frustrating to chemists."
Those frustrations are aired out in yearly events, like the West Michigan Association of Lactation Consultants annual breastfeeding conference, where MDs and other experts backed by the International Board of Certified Lactation Counselors meet to discuss the topic.
"Science is really just touching the tip of the iceberg on being able to truly understand the complexity of what is really in human milk," Vance says. "We think about it in terms of strictly nutrition, but in actuality, human milk, the makeup of it, is more closely related to blood because of its ability to fight disease. It's a very unique biological solution."
Not only unique but dynamic. The qualities of breastmilk change by the day and the hour. While a baby's first nursing of the day will supply protein, calcium and other essential minerals, as the evening comes on, the mammary glands increase the amount of sleep-promoting nucleotides. This means that the perceived advantages of using a pump to save milk for later may not always be the best choice, especially for those lacking sleep.
“It is a mistake for the mother to express the milk at a certain time and then store it and feed it to the baby at a different time,” researcher Cristina Sánchez at the University of Extremadura in Badajoz, Spain, tells New Scientist.
Breastmilk is still the best food to support the growth of newborn babies, just as it is in other species. When it comes to supporting the mothers who make that milk, however, some of the greatest resources lay in the community of women who lift each other up with education and emotional encouragement in a trying time. Their tools and techniques may change, but as bonding with baby is of utmost importance during those first few weeks, physical interaction and connection is just as important to the women who nurse those children.
It's safe to say, our future depends on mothers who breastfeed. The more support they can have, the better.
Editor’s note: The author of this story is himself responsible for a human child, which is and has been breastfed by her own mother for the last 21 months, although the child was not consulted for this article.
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]
Photography by Adam Bird, Bird + Bird Studio