Exploring language among gender nonconforming individuals and nontraditional partners

 June is notoriously known as Pride Month, but October features other observances that bring awareness to a variety of health issues and topics that impact LGBTQIA youth. October 11 was National Coming Out Day, October 20 was International Pronouns Day and last week, individuals and organizations recognized Intersex Awareness Day

In Breastfeeding Priorities: Safe Sleep, Bias, Gender Equitable Norms, and Paid Leave— Q&A with Internationally and Nationally Recognized Breastfeeding Expert, Lori Feldman Winter, MD, MPH, NICHQ poses the questions: How can we acknowledge the need to be inclusive of all types of parents and caregivers?  How do we promote gender-equitable social norms to better support breastfeeding?”

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Feldman Winter offers, “… We need to ask, ‘how do we better support breastfeeding among gender nonconforming individuals and nontraditional partners?’ so we don’t alienate anyone when it comes to breastfeeding. It starts with being more inclusive and acknowledging that the benefits of breastfeeding aren’t all tied to the concept of the ‘breast’ itself. Breastfeeding is a complex compilation of systems including biological benefits from skin-to-skin touching and nurturing; nutrients from human milk that can be breast- or bottle-fed; and benefits that come directly from the flora on a lactating/nursing breast.

There are multiple ways to look at breastfeeding and understand its benefits, Feldman Winter continues. 

For instance “a chest that may not be able to produce milk can still nurture babies through the benefits of skin-to-skin contact,” she’s quoted in the NICHQ piece. “People who don’t produce breastmilk can still provide human milk through donor milk and bottle feeding. Transgender men and gender nonconforming parents and caregivers may still breastfeed safely if they choose to, and may prefer the term chestfeeding over breastfeeding because it respects their identity. All kinds of arrangements can be made to truly provide an equitable support system. As clinicians and scientists, we need to keep an open mind as we look at breastfeeding and explore how to optimize the health and well-being of all babies and families.” 

The authors of Effective Communication About Pregnancy, Birth, Lactation, Breastfeeding and Newborn Care: The Importance of Sexed Language present their thoughts about the risks of using desexed language in perinatal care.

Photo credit: PNW Production

The authors acknowledge that “Desexing the language of female reproduction has been done with a view to being sensitive to individual needs and as beneficial, kind, and inclusive.” 

They go on, “Yet, this kindness has delivered unintended consequences that have serious implications for women and children. These include: decreasing overall inclusivity; dehumanizing; including people who should be excluded; being imprecise, inaccurate or misleading; and disembodying and undermining breastfeeding. In addition, avoidance of the term ‘mother’ in its sexed sense, risks reducing recognition and the right to protection of the mother-infant dyad.”  

As part of this discussion, NICHQ has released statements in regard to the use of its language.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov

Heidi Brooks, Chief Operating Officer at NICHQ writes,  “NICHQ is not abandoning the traditional use of the terms ‘mother’ and ‘maternal.’ We are embracing the inclusive language of ‘birthing person/people’ across our work. A move toward inclusive language does not force us to stop using language that so many people identify with; at its core, inclusion is about creating more space for one another. We are taking care to expand the use of these terms in our communications, on our website, in our resources, and eventually, in all our projects. This evolution is another aspect of NICHQ’s commitment to equity in all forms, including race, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability.” 

The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) put out its Clinical Protocol #33: Lactation Care for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Plus Patients in May 2020 to help guide lactation care providers through items like language, creating a respectful health care environment, through the effects of transition-related health care on pregnancy and breast/chestfeeding, fertility options, induced lactation and colactation and milk sharing, as well as put out a call out for future research to better inform practice.

Photo courtesy of Glenis Decuir

Check out past Our Milky Way coverage on LGBTQIA health

Uplifting transgender and non binary parents 

On becoming transliterate 

Working to close the gaps in LGBTQ care 

Blurring the binary 

Skin to skin image goes viral 

Wives co-breastfeed son for two-and-a-half years

Explore youth.gov’s page for other past and upcoming events celebrating Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Expression, and Well-Being.

Hispanic Health Council’s Breastfeeding Heritage and Pride (BHP) Program heals, empowers and celebrates through peer counseling model

Photo by Luiza Braun

Over half of the Hispanic Health Council’s Breastfeeding Heritage and Pride (BHP) Program peer counselors were once served by the program as mothers enduring mastitis or going back to work early or other barriers to healthy infant feeding. Yet, some of these mothers still managed to breastfeed into toddlerhood.

“They took the knowledge to not only be able to succeed but [brought] it back into their community,”  BHP program manager and lactation consultant Cody Cuni, IBCLC, BS says. “This is a success story.”

BHP is a person-centered, peer support counseling program intended to increase breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity among low-income, minority women in the greater Hartford, Connecticut area. For over 20 years, the program has existed in some form. In 2000, an official review of the program was completed and solidified the peer-counseling model.

The program’s name was born out of community feedback, mainly from Puerto Rican families. Cuni explains that as community Puerto Ricans were heavily targeted by formula marketing,  the name ‘Breastfeeding Heritage and Pride’ grew from the idea of reclaiming breastfeeding as part of their heritage.

Photo credit: United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC)

Often, the lactation model of care is rooted in colonization, but Cuni says that their program  strives to respect and celebrate diversity.

“Our program seeks to empower…” she begins. “[Breastfeeding] is something that is yours, and something that has always been yours,” she says, speaking to the people they serve.

As program manager, Cuni trains the peer counselors through a 40-hour comprehensive lactation training. She approaches the training through a lens of diversity and cultural competence, helping peer counselors learn to have respectful conversations and teaching them how to be an advocate.

She explains, “Our peer counselors are working with mothers who do face a lot of bias in their health care and in lactation, so we have whole trainings on how to communicate with a provider, how to approach hospital staff who say things like ‘Don’t waste your time on that mother…’”

Peer counselors embark on visits with senior peer counselors and other lactation care providers as part of their mentorship model.

Photo by Felipe Balduino

The program also provides continuing education to stay relevant and weekly meetings to complete case reviews.

As part of their grant funding, BHP is required to track their breastfeeding rates, but Cuni says that what she finds more compelling than these numbers, is the documentation of the lactating person’s individual goals.

Empowering mothers to seek their own goals is our ultimate goal, Cuni says.

BHP is nestled in the Hispanic Health Council’s Parent and Family Learning department which offers other supports throughout the “cycle of learning throughout a family’s lifespan”.

Photo by Omar Lopez

“A holistic approach of care is vital especially for maternal child health care,” Cuni explains. “The first 1,000 days of life are critical to laying a healthy foundation.”

Practicing on a continuum of care gives Cuni and her colleagues the ability to gain a deep understanding of the families they serve, she says.

“Because we work so closely with the families, we establish trust and are able to refer in a way that they might not be open with [other providers].”

The clients that BHP serves are up against every breastfeeding challenge that every family faces in our country, but the issues are compounded and amplified by the stress of living in communities steeped in systemic racism and lack of resources, Cuni explains.

Their clients are managing intergenerational trauma and all of the symptoms associated with trauma, at a cellular level and beyond. For instance, BHP clients have a higher propensity of birthing babies with complex medical needs because of higher rates of preterm labor, gestational diabetes and other health concerns.

Cuni points out other challenges like those associated with being an undoumented immigrant. Gaining access to basic tools like breast pumps can be nearly impossible. Some of their clients return to work at two weeks postpartum after a cesarean section, not by choice of course, but for fear of losing their work as part-time employees.

And although Connecticut has workplace lactation laws in place, mothers will find that if they make noise about those protections, they might not see their name on the schedule any longer.

Photo source: United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC)

Yet, despite all of these obstacles, Cuni says, “There is a sense of resiliency. They’re overcoming so much and they’re not even sitting in that; they’re just living their lives and wanting to do the best for their baby. That resiliency is really inspiring.”

Cuni shares about a mother who lost her baby late in her pregnancy and decided to pump and donate her milk for six months.

“This mom, her experience, her unimaginable tragedy…she still wanted to do something with her milk, and it was really a privilege for our peer counselors to support her.”

Another client they served, after struggling to assert her workplace lactation rights, had a position created for her by their HR department as “breastfeeding liaison”. Now, she is an advocate for any breastfeeding or lactating mother at her workplace.

“Not only did she win for herself, she left it better,” Cuni comments.

Cuni came to this work as a stay-at-home mom with ten years of breastfeeding experience. She was a single mother, returning to the workforce after leaving an abusive marriage.

“My breastfeeding experience was valued as an asset,” Cuni remembers. “My lived experience counted.”

She goes on, “As women, and especially as mothers, we’re always caring for someone else. The pressures that we face make wellness difficult. Our society needs to do more to recognize the value that women have and the support they need to succeed. I want to …. amplify the voices, because if we listen, the answers that we need to solve the maternal mortality crisis, the answers are there if we listen to the women and families we are working with.”

For those interested in supporting the work of the Hispanic Health Council’s BHP, they are looking for donated breastfeeding supplies. You can get in touch at  codyc@hispanichealthcouncil.org.