A few weeks ago, I wrote about nursing my newborn at her well-child check up and our healthcare providers’ reactions.
While I express a glint of hope for our society, overall, it’s a rather angry post.
I recently came in contact with Jenny DeDecker, CLC, LMT a Kansas native who currently lives in a rural Michigan town. Having previously lived in California, she shares an interesting dichotomy between her California community and the one she currently resides in.
When I became pregnant in California, [my husband] and I had the option to interview multiple midwives. Their phone numbers were easy to come by and our friends and acquaintances had opinions and stories about their own midwife or their friend’s midwife. The one we chose to work with was also employed by the local medical clinic. We were encouraged to receive “parallel care”, meaning prenatal care from an M.D. as well as from a midwife. This type of care was very common and respected by both parties…The desired end result was the same for everyone: healthy mother and healthy baby.
When I moved to [Michigan], I knew that I wanted to have another child and that again I desired a home birth. I had a very hard time finding a midwife and an even harder time finding a doctor who would offer parallel care. I was denied care by several doctors when they learned of my intention to have a homebirth with a midwife. Even though I began my search for care 12 months before I got pregnant, I was 18 weeks gestation before I finally received care from a medical professional. In the same week, I met our midwife, and a Family Practice doctor who agreed to parallel care.
In California breastfeeding was so common that I rarely went a day without seeing a baby nursing in a public location, whether that be in an Ergo or Moby carrier, on a park bench, in a restaurant, at the beach, or in the grocery store. Bottle fed babies were so few and far between, it was actually difficult to get advice from mothers on which brand or type of bottles were best. It seemed that most women with whom I interacted had little to no experience with bottles.
When we moved to Michigan, my daughter was 13 months old and still an avid nurser. When I nursed in public, I received so many stares that I actually started to believe that many of the residents here had never seen a breastfeeding dyad.
The perplexed expressions on their faces were similar to the ones I witnessed while visiting villages in Peru where the school children had never seen a person with light colored skin. I felt foreign in my new town. There seemed to be no other women nursing publicly. It was within this isolated state that my passion for breastfeeding blossomed. I had taken for granted the ease and normalcy of breastfeeding in California. Now I felt as though I stood alone, in a new community, with a toddler at my breast. I was motivated and affirmed by the sweet great-grandmother that approached me out at dinner one night, congratulating me on nursing my baby. My passion was driven deeper when the receptionist at the dentist office told me to cover up because there were “older men” scheduled to arrive shortly (I kindly refused). I resolved then that I was not going to change for my community, but my community would change for natural, for healthy, and for right.
Discrepancies in breastfeeding acceptance occur for a variety of reasons; one outstanding reason being access to education, DeDecker comments. She makes an interesting observation that women are generally “given an opportunity to learn about breastfeeding, but it is offered when they are already pregnant.” Expectant parents may be offered breastfeeding pamphlets during prenatal visits and directed to classes but this is where the “support” ends in most communities throughout the States.
“This presents a major flaw in the system,” DeDecker says.
Maternity wards exhibit flaws that further discourage women from successfully breastfeeding. DeDecker, an aspiring doula, has attended births in both California and Michigan.
“…In California doulas are very common, so I had no hesitations being with friends through their labor, but I was a little nervous walking into the hospital for my first birth here [in Michigan],” she explains.
But to DeDecker’s surprise, the medical staff was receptive to her requests as acting doula.
“The nurses seemed happy to have me there because the floor was packed with laboring women and they were stretched pretty thin,” she says. “I think they appreciated knowing that someone was with this mother, helping and supporting her.”
While DeDecker says she believes women are generally given great care at Dickinson County Memorial Hospital, the local maternity hospital, she adds that it is apparent that natural, normal birth “is not what they normally see.”
“Women are still routinely hooked up to monitors and IVs. There is one birthing ball on the entire floor. There are showers but no bathtubs. Women are offered water, ice and popsicles only. VBACs are against hospital policy and the use of Pitocin is incredibly common,” she reports.
It isn’t breaking news that the overuse of intervention during labor and birth directly affects a mother and baby’s ability to breastfeed. Like too many other maternity hospitals, Dickinson Memorial offers extremely limited lactation support postnatally.
Families in DeDecker’s community are up against other challenges.
For instance, women have been formula and bottle-feeding for at least two or three generations.
“Many women having babies right now have never observed a baby feeding at the breast,” DeDecker explains. “It is hard to expect our new mothers to try something so different from their understanding of the way things are. People in this community are rooted deeply. This quality makes Upper Michigan special, but at the same time, makes change difficult. ‘I was formula fed and I turned out fine’ is a difficult mindset to work with.”
Fortunately, DeDecker is anything but discouraged. As a massage therapist she says she in in a “constant state of wonder and amazement… as [she studies] and observe[s] the human body.”
“I will never stop being in awe of its innate power and ability,” she continues. “Considering the manner in which people so blindly trust their bodies on a day to day basis, it is bewildering how something as natural as breastfeeding became an issue of question.”
Because breastfeeding has become stigmatized, DeDecker completed Healthy Children Project’s The Lactation Counselor Training Course to become better equipped to change the breastfeeding dynamic in her community. Having been discouraged by the rigidity of the IBCLC program, DeDecker “was very excited to find the CLC training.”
Besides expressing excitement over learning about the growing number of Baby-Friendly facilities, DeDecker says it was energizing to be surrounded by so many people working toward a common goal.
“It has been easy for me to feel somewhat isolated in my community and before attending the training, my goals seemed difficult to attain,” she says. “I left the training with the motivation and support that I needed to return to my community with confidence that this paradigm shift is possible.”
DeDecker has started networking in her area since completing the training. So far she has met with a WIC breastfeeding peer counselor, a WIC nurse and family practice physician “who is extremely receptive and excited about any changes in the direction of normalizing breastfeeding.”
“What I seem to be finding is that there are a lot of health care providers who want this shift to happen, but they have been waiting for the spark to start the fire,” she says. “Maybe that’s what my purpose is?”
DeDecker offers lactation counseling to clients at Dr. Kerry Niebrzydowski’s, ND Radiant Natural Health Clinic where she practices massage and bodywork as well as at a chiropractic office.
DeDecker offers lactation support and education, pre- and post-natal massage and infant massage through her own business, Full Moon Rising Maternal Health Services.
Eventually, DeDecker says she would like to operate as a natural maternal health center where clients can enjoy pre, peri and postnatal care. She has plans to create a community space for breastfeeding and childbirth education, yoga, meditation and retail space for natural products and therapies related to pregnancy and maternal care.