Dean of Union University and Institute’s (UI&U) Florida academic center Dr. Beryl Watnick’s, PhD journey into the field of maternal child health was inspired by her own childhood. Growing up in an enlightened, extended matriarchal household where breastfeeding was the norm and the bond between mother and child was considered paramount, influenced her choice to breastfeed all three of her sons.
Later in her professional life as a public school administrator, Dr. Watnick actively engaged in the early childhood community. She certified as infant toddler and Starting Points trainers where she focused her work on brain development during early childhood.
Dr. Watnick is a 1996 alumna of UI&U’s doctoral program. Here she studied prenatal exposure to crack cocaine and its impact on the growth and development of young children.
In 2000, Dr. Watnick served on the board of directors for the South Florida Perinatal Network Healthy Start Coalition. During this time she became involved in her community’s efforts to strengthen the role of parents and early intervention services.
“My work with mothers and babies who were identified as ‘at risk’ reinforced my belief in the need to educate moms about the importance of those first few years,” she says.
In 2001, Dr. Watnick joined UI&U to develop and lead the Florida Master of Education and Education Specialist programs and was appointed Dean of undergraduate programs in 2008.
Currently, there are only five schools in the U.S. that offer degrees related to lactation counseling and UI&U, accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, is the only program in Maternal Child Health in the state of Florida. [Retrieved from: http://southfloridahospitalnews.com/page/Union_Institute__University_Brings_Bachelor_of_Science_in_Maternal_Child_Health_to_Florida/7892/3/]
UI&U partners with Healthy Children Project to offer evidence-based lactation, breastfeeding and health and wellness courses and degrees.
“When [Healthy Children faculty] presented the… program to our national faculty, I was surprised by how many well educated faculty appeared uncomfortable with the subject matter,” Dr. Watnick says. “That impression fueled my desire to educate my own…staff and then bring the program to South Florida.”
Dr. Watnick completed Healthy Children’s The Lactation Counselor Training Course and says she was “completely ‘blown away’ by the five day experience.”
“It was one of the most engaging learning experiences I’ve had in years,” she adds.
The course reinforced her initial perspective on maternal child health but also provided her with supporting research. Dr. Watnick says she is disturbed by the dismal number of Baby Friendly hospitals in our nation and how hospital staff can send mixed messages to new moms when they distribute samples of formula.
In Union Institute and University Brings Bachelor of Science in Maternal Child Health to Florida, she acknowledges the significance of creating a strong field of lactation professionals.
“A key part of these support efforts, is the need to educate a cadre of professionals with the specialized skills required for the sensitive and multidimensional nature of the job of lactation counselor,” she writes.
Dr. Watnick sheds light on the importance of getting to know mothers as people and not just clients.
“It is critically important to know something about the mother you are counseling,” she explains. “We all live in such diverse communities and we need to be exceptionally enlightened and sensitive to the culture and beliefs of our clients. It is also imperative that the counselor understands the structure and functioning of the family unit as this will contribute to the mother’s attitude towards breastfeeding.”
Dr. Watnick reflects on her personal experience: “I had an absolutely horrific visit from a lactation professional when I was nursing my first son. She had no awareness about who I was and what my own belief system was. Rather than listen to me and my concerns, she chose to proselytize and judge me. It was quite traumatic.”
For the past two years, Dr. Watnick has attended Healthy Children’s International Breastfeeding Conference and calls its speakers inspiring. This year, she joins the lineup.
Participants will enjoy Dr. Watnick’s presentation “Neuroplasticity: Building Better Brains in Babies.” The session will explore how the young brain develops and how early experiences, including breastfeeding, shape the brain’s architecture.
“Everything I have learned about how the brain develops in response to touch leads me to believe that something as natural as skin to skin can have powerful implications for bonding and all of those character traits that follow,” Dr. Watnick says.
In her presentation, she will also focus on how responsive caregiving can serve as a buffer against the damage caused by stress and neglect and help children succeed in life.
“There are so many amazing discoveries about neuroplasticity and nurturing,” she says.
Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley’s Ghosts from the nursery: Tracing the roots of violence explores protective factors that mitigate against aggression later in childhood, Dr. Watnick explains.
She goes on, “Emotional attachment is one of those key factors and that mother infant bond is of profound importance. The brain patterns in babies can mirror the brain patterns in depressed mothers, but when women with depression are taught how to engage their babies in spite of their depression, their children’s depressed brain patterns can reverse themselves. This is the power of parenting.”
For more information about the upcoming International Breastfeeding Conference, please visit: http://www.centerforbreastfeeding.org/conferences3.htm.