Lack of breastfeeding education in med school harms families

“Guess what. I’m pregnant,” I announced.

My friend Jay sat across from me and my five month pregnant belly nearly three years ago at Qdoba during a break between classes.

To my surprise, Jay was quick to congratulate me, a reaction much different than the usual “Oh I’m so sorry” looks or “Is the dad involved you unwed slut” questioning.

Then he asked, “Are you making sure to take a prenatal vitamin with the recommended amount of folic acid?”

“You should be getting 400 mcg each day,” he said before I could answer.

At that moment, I knew my med school-bound bud would become just as good a doctor some day as he was a friend.

Jamespic1James Thomas Dean III (such an awesomely distinguished name) is currently a third year medical student at Midwestern University on track to graduate in May 2015. He recently completed a six week pediatric rotation with Dr. Jennifer Schening, DO of Next Generation Pediatrics. During this rotation, Dr. Schening required Jay to complete the Wellstart International Lactation Management Self-Study Module.

“In school we only covered very general things about breastfeeding,” Jay says.

General things like breastfeeding is the best infant feeding option thanks to its irreplicable immunities; there are very few contraindications to breastfeeding and exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months is recommended.

Jay admits completing the Wellstart module was a bit daunting, but he’s appreciative to have gained more knowledge about infant feeding.

He tells me he is fascinated by breastmilk’s transformation throughout a feed as well as the changes it undergoes throughout an entire breastfeeding relationship.

“The main thing I took away from the module was a reinforced belief in the critical role breastfeeding plays in raising a healthy, developing child,” Jay says. “There really is no true substitute. Making mothers comfortable with breastfeeding and providing them all the support they need needs to be a goal for all pediatricians.”

A goal for everyone, I correct.

Jay plans to become an oncologist.

“So I will not encounter breastfeeding very heavily in my future practice,” he says.

I gasp and remind him that “Epidemiologic data suggest that women who do not breastfeed face higher risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer…” Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc also points out in The Risks of Not Breastfeeding for Mothers and Infants, “Two meta-analyses1,48 found a 1.3-fold higher risk of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (95% CI, 1.1–1.4) among formula-fed children compared with children who were breastfed less than 6 months.”

And finally I share with him this article that claims a substance found in breastmilk can kill 40 different types of cancer.

Jay redeems himself, “However the knowledge I gained will be instrumental both for my future family and friends. As a physician I should be encouraging nursing whenever applicable.”

I jump for joy. It’s one thing for Jay to encourage breastfeeding, but he has taken his support to the next level by avidly seeking more, evidence-based knowledge outside of his traditional medical training.

While totally terrifying that most medical students simply cover “breastfeeding basics” in school, it’s encouraging to come across guys like Jay (an enthusiastic Our Milky Way reader) as well as physicians who promote a deeper understanding of breastfeeding and breastfeeding culture.

PerlaSAssistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas San Antonio Dr. Perla N. Soni, MD  is one of these champions.

She noticed too many mothers initially struggling with breastfeeding at her practice. Sending the mothers to an external clinic for help seemed to discourage the mothers even further. That’s when she became inspired to take Healthy Children Project’s The Lactation Counselor Training Course.

Dr. Soni says she was impressed and excited by the diversity of professionals in her training: social workers, doulas, physicians, nurses and the list goes on.

She says she believes lactation and breastfeeding education should begin in high school and be included in all health care programs. Because this isn’t the reality, she offers specialized lactation education to over 40 pediatric residents, different from the “generic” breastfeeding information presented in the American Academy of Pediatric’s Powerpoint slides.

Dr. Soni’s colleague Dr. Alice K. Gong uses the Wellstart Self-Study Module with her students, like Dr. Schening.

Still, Dr. Soni would like to see use of more media when educating med students and residents about breastfeeding.

“You can read about latching and Google it but if you don’t see a patient, how can you address the problem?” she wonders.

Diversifying the methods used to teach medical students will potentially spark interest in those less receptive to lactation education.

Dr. Soni finds that male students and childless students tend to be the least interested, or of course the students who assume breastfeeding doesn’t pertain to their future practice.

In reality, breastfeeding impacts every facet of life; from healthcare to the environment to the workplace to the economy. Our future physicians play an integral part in changing our breastfeeding culture which is why it is essential that they are receiving evidence-based training.

Dr. Soni argues that, at the very least, physicians and aspiring physicians must believe that they are here to give breastfeeding families much needed support.

What is your experience with physicians and breastfeeding? Please share in the comments below!

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