Only a small percentage of mothers in the U.S. and globally achieve their breastfeeding goals. A myriad of factors contribute to this deficit, largely in part due to lack of access to proper breastfeeding support. Where there is a deficit for appropriate infant feeding support, there is a growing number of mothers turning to online social networking for breastfeeding support. With over half of the world’s population using the internet, including 75 percent of U.S. parents of whom turn to social media for parenting-related information and social support, maternal child health advocates need to be aware of this reality.
Ms. Nicole Bridges, B. Comm (Hons) is a lecturer in public relations and part time PhD candidate at Western Sydney University researching online social networking and breastfeeding support. Since 2000, Bridges has been a volunteer peer breastfeeding counsellor and community educator for the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA). Bridges was announced winner of the Mary Paton Research Award 2015. She’s published works like The faces of breastfeeding support: Experiences of mothers seeking breastfeeding support online. and Facebook as a Netnographic Research Tool.
Bridges looks forward to “catching up with a lovely… wonderful group of people” at the upcoming 24th Annual International Breastfeeding Conference & Nutrition and Nurture in Infancy and Childhood: Bio-Cultural Perspectives presented by Healthy Children Project, Inc. and the University of Central Lancashire’s Maternal and Infant Nutrition and Nurture Unit (MAINN) where she will present Breastfeeding Peer Support on Social Networking Sites.
Contrary to popular concern, Bridges has found that online social media breastfeeding support complements face-to-face interaction.
“They work together in a lot of instances,” she says.
For instance, in-person support isn’t available 24/7; social media fills that gap. Of course this element is essential for mothers and babies struggling to breastfeed. Where breastfeeding helplines are available, like the one ABA offers, Bridges points out that many mothers are more likely to post their concern(s) on Facebook rather than call the helpline. What’s more, this space offers moms “access to the collective wisdom of the whole tribe,” as opposed to the perspective of one lactation professional.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Bridges. Exposure to a range of experiences is important for mothers to make informed decisions that suit her situation, she adds.
About a decade ago, when social media was relatively new, people were concerned about the deterioration of human interaction.
“A lot of people were afraid that people were going to turn into robots and never see the light of day,” Bridges begins.
In the realm of breastfeeding support, Bridges’ research shows that Facebook actually enables face-to-face interaction. Mothers looking for social interaction offline often post meet-up requests and connect this way.
“Mothers are getting out of the house as a result of [social media.]”
Social media offers the remote mother the opportunity to access support too.
As with any kind of online support, social media breastfeeding support has the potential to cause miscommunication largely in part due to the absence of body language and vocalization. Although Facebook provides some visuals like emojis, comments are sometimes misconstrued, Bridges says.
Certainly when it comes to ‘technical’ breastfeeding concerns, it is helpful for lactation support people to see the dyad breastfeeding. On Facebook, Bridges reports, the presumed limitations of online support can often be overcome by using tools like live feeds. In fact, ABA put forth a trial where mothers wore Google glasses while breastfeeding so that the breastfeeding counselor could see what the mother was seeing.
Bridges acknowledges that many mothers have too much access to their devices and social media which has been shown to affect our mental health. And while she appreciates the immediacy of social media, she informs mothers about these concerns.
Still, Bridges strongly encourages maternal child health advocates to embrace social media breastfeeding support.
“Don’t underestimate the effect that digital technologies can have on breastfeeding support.”
By assuming technologies are a bad idea, Bridges says we run the risk of missing out on “huge potential” for parenting support.
“Meet this current generation of mothers where they’re at,” Bridges advises. “We will not meet their needs if we’re not in their field. This is their playing field.”
To learn more about the upcoming International Breastfeeding and MAINN Conference, click here.