Building resilience in mothers and babies

Delicately packed in bandages, several stones huddle together withstanding crashing waves on an Australian shore. The installation, To take care of, by Hannah Streefkerk was featured in a resiliency lecture presented by Anna Blair and Karin Cadwell at this year’s International Breastfeeding Conference.

“Everyone needs to be taken care of,” Blair concluded, admiring an image of the almost-anthropomorphic pebbles.

This is especially true of postpartum women.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.
Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.

We know that our culture requires serious improvements in order to better support new mothers, especially in relation to the early postpartum period and infant feeding. One in seven women suffer from postpartum depression in the U.S. That number is higher for women suffering from perinatal mood disorders.

In this landscape, void of paid parental leave, lactation professionals play an important role in building resilience in new parents. In fact, Cadwell pointed out in her lecture that lactation professionals are the resilience dividend.

Author Judith Rodin coined the term resilience dividend– “the capacity of any entity…to pre-emptively prepare for sudden disruptions that were unpredicted, to recover from them and then to take advantage of new opportunities produced by the disruption for further growth and expansion.” (Bold text added.)

Building resilience in new mothers is as important as ever as new research shows that breastfeeding continues to be more than just milk.

The act of breastfeeding “helps mothers overcome the legacy of abuse and adversity” and equips babies with long term resiliency.

“Because breastfeeding increases maternal responsivity, it makes the day-to-day experience of mothering more tolerable,” Kathleen Kendall-Tackett,PHD, IBCLC, FAPA writes in The new paradigm for depression in new mothers: current findings on maternal depression, breastfeeding and resiliency across the lifespan.

Breastfeeding “increases the chances that the babies will be securely attached and will not have their stress and inflammatory response systems chronically up-regulated,” she adds.

Kendall-Tackett was featured as this year’s GOLD Lactation Online Conference’s Keynote Presenter. Below are a few highlights from Breastfeeding Helps Mothers Overcome the Legacy of Abuse and Adversity: It Makes All the Difference.

  • The act of breastfeeding can help us parent differently than we were parented.
  • Establishing a strong relationship between mother and baby translates into resiliency for that child later in life.
  • Adult disease prevention begins with reducing early toxic stress; breastfeeding helps combat the brain “soaking in stress hormones.”
  • Breastfeeding provides a “lovely, little cloud” of stress-reduction for mothers. In one study, breastfeeding reduced mothers’ responses to induced stressors.
  • Breastfeeding is one of nature’s built-in mechanisms against adversity. This study showed that babies of depressed mothers who breastfed had normal EEG activity versus the abnormal EEG patterns of babies of depressed mothers who bottle-fed.
  • This recently published study shows that “infants with high EBF experience show a significantly greater neural sensitivity to happy body expressions than those with low EBF experience.”

The valuable insight and fascinating studies Kendall-Tackett shared in her presentation go on.

“In short, breastfeeding can make the world a happier and healthier place, one mother and baby at a time,” as she puts it.

While we wait for science to influence policy, practice and eventually overall infant feeding culture, lactation professionals and other health care providers should provide appropriate support– including resilience building when necessary– so that mothers may successfully reach their breastfeeding goals.

To help mothers become resilient, Blair and Cadwell suggest first finding out the mother’s narrative. Find out where she’s coming from. Listen to her story.

Then, in the face of adversity, ask her questions like: “Why do you think this happened? Why do you think this happened now? What will make it better?”

To quote Cindy Turner-Maffei, “become a reflective pool– an opportunity to offer back insights that might help clients to make life-altering changes.”

Help the mother rewrite her narrative. Look for positivity in her story. Help her to organize her thoughts. Blair shared this helpful mental process:

  • Something is up. What is up?
  • What do I need to do? I will do this. I am able to do this.
  • I got through this. What’s next?

Help her see her strengths. Praise her for the accomplishments she has made. Remind her, “Tomorrow is a better day.”

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