Blind spots in breastfeeding support Part II

601095_10151443706867211_1096450953_nWith Black Breastfeeding Week (Facebook page here) coming to a close, we share with you Part II of Blind spots in breastfeeding support, a Q&A with Acquanda Stanford. You can read Part I here. Stanford’s webinar, Are IBCLCs The ‘New’ Infant Formula?, airs today.

Q: Please explain how your doula work fits into all of this. You write on your website that doulas offer breastfeeding support but you  “do not provide any hand’s on assistance” because “doing so interferes with the innate and biological instinct between the mother-infant dyad.” 

A: I know that without what has been termed scientific ‘evidence’ – meaning a formal study, most things are simply relegated to ‘anecdotal’. But I don’t think it’s anecdotal to say that women have been breastfeeding since the beginning of time, and there is an instinct that exists between the mother-infant dyad that I strongly believe becomes disrupted with assistance with mechanics, and especially when passively allowing this intervention, like what we often see in hospital settings. This is an area where I definitely plan on placing more of a practical and academic emphasis. I can’t do anything for a mother and her baby that she can’t do for herself. She knows better than I ever could, about her body and what she and her baby need.

Even though my focus has remained with breastfeeding, over the past while I have really begun to see the links between birthing and breastfeeding. I was initially interested in becoming a doula because I thought it would be an extension of my breastfeeding work – that engaging with women in the postpartum period and doing postpartum work only would give me more insight and provide another avenue to promote breastfeeding. But after I took the training I was stunned (but then not really surprised), at the amount of trauma that is involved in birthing practices. I had no idea that Black babies have such a high rate of mortality because they are not being carried to term. I also didn’t know that […the Black maternal mortality rate is very high…], because of many racial and gendered implications. Learning all of this was sobering. But it made sense to me, though, given the complicated history of Blackness in this country and the (dis)regard for Black life that’s been embedded in a large part of the social fabric. But what also amazed me was learning that just sitting in a room with a woman means that she will have a better birthing outcome, and less likely to have an unnecessary caesarean, a better chance of increased breastfeeding and more confidence, along with a list of others. That’s just incredible. So, even though I still focus on breastfeeding in my overall work, my role in birth means that I approach being doula as a social justice initiative. It is a form of praxis for me, and means that I use this avenue to challenge the legacy of social turmoil that has been waged on our bodies, with medical experimentation – cutting into our bodies for the purposes for ‘scientific procedures,’ which has landed on the bodies of many women – and especially Black women, who have been quite disproportionately impacted by this time and again for various medical ‘discoveries’.

Q: You respond to a comment on your blog: “I don’t think professionalization creates normalization of breastfeeding. Instead it creates a normalization of medicalization (which is an entirely new conversation in itself) and, in turn, among many things, creates a cultural shift and embeds the message that women must look outside of themselves to initiate this age-old tradition.”

Is it fair to say that one of the first steps to addressing the issues you’ve presented is lactation professionals having the guts to acknowledge that we might be part of the problem?

A: I have seen and have heard of so many breastfeeding meetings and conferences and summits and such, geared towards creating more ‘fairness’ – so to speak, in breastfeeding: in erasing barriers to access in the community, and especially erasing barriers in professional pursuits. What is always left out of these same conversations is that breastfeeding itself is more stratified than ever on a much larger scale because of these increases in professionalism. I hear so many women talking about having a lactation consultant at their birth, or after, or whenever, to assist with breastfeeding. But on the other side of that I also hear many who say that they had to begin using formula because they didn’t have access to professional assistance – they couldn’t afford one, or other reasons. While I was visiting a good friend up on Bowen Island, B.C., for me, our conversation really underscored the injustice that is perpetuated in this way. It really highlighted the way that breastfeeding professionalism has instituted a system where it is not something utilized by those who want to breastfeed. Instead, it is utilized by women who want to breastfeed who can afford these services or otherwise have access. And that’s just the very beginning of a very complex web of problems. In my opinion I just don’t think there’s any way to rationalize this – especially since breastfeeding is an innately human characteristic. What message is this sending now and what is it sending for future generations?

Q: You share your criticism on the attention Beyonce received on social media when she allegedly nursed her baby in public. What kinds of things would you prefer to see “blow up” social media sites?

A: So many advocates expressed their excitement about this – about Beyonce, allegedly breastfeeding in public. And if this was the case then I’m absolutely glad she breastfed her daughter when and where she needed to, as I am for anyone.[..]but I believe that focus on people in this type of spotlight often has the tendency to cloud our vision and overlook that just because someone on such a platform as Beyonce participated in a certain activity that would seem to benefit us, it does not mean that it is doing so. I think that instead, it would be something that would possibly only make it appealing. In my mind, it would reduce the act to a trend, or a ‘rage,’ because someone with such acclaim enacts it – and trends and rages come and go. I don’t think that this will work to transform our real thoughts and attitudes on this tradition, or have people value it as the lifesaving, community transforming, radical reclamation of tradition that breastfeeding really is. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but for myself I don’t really want to see anything ‘blow up’ anywhere. I want us to get to a point where breastfeeding is so normal and so embedded in our minds and in our hearts and in our souls that no one bats an eye. But that is not going to happen tomorrow. That level of necessary radicalism – grasping things at that root level, in my mind, is not possible from an angle from someone with that amount of celebrity.

Q: Anything else to add?

A: One thing that I really believe needs to happen in breastfeeding support is to change the conversation. I think those truly interested in creating a more just environment should be willing and eager to work on radically decolonizing this custom. I believe this can only happen with a very thorough and critical examination that really goes beneath the surface. I think we need to ask ourselves what we are really expecting with the implementation of breastfeeding professionalism and any other area that is closely related….We are all responsible and play a part in creating and maintaining social divisions and can all work to dismantle these.

On the other hand, I don’t want to only theorize this area, and overlook that there have been and continue to be women who have needed assistance from professionals, in order to either initiate or sustain breastfeeding, and that’s the only way they have been able to make it work. But for one, we know that is neither the biological or physiological norm, nor is it the norm within the very lengthy evolutionary record – that a baby cannot attach itself to its food source. And, I’m also not convinced that learning to put a breast in the mouth of one is the answer to our collective issues in this area. I think that has operated as simply a veneer that has become entirely too convenient – a way to treat symptoms. I really think we need to place a greater emphasis on the issues that are situated between the two – a baby and a breast – that function to keep them disconnected. And we also need to ask the questions about if we are breaking down what many people believe are barriers in breastfeeding support, only to inaugurate others into a different matrix of structural and systematic injustice. I really think that needs to be a highly prioritized topic, among us.

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