Breastfeeding is food sovereignty. Breastfeeding is health equity. Breastfeeding is healing.

–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…”

Breastfeeding is food sovereignty. Breastfeeding is health equity. Breastfeeding is healing.

Breastfeeding is a “weapon of mass construction”, a phrase coined by Camie Jae Goldhammer, MSW, LICSW, IBCLC, (Sisseton-Wahpeton).

In her Reclaiming the Tradition of Breastfeeding: the Foundation of a Nation webinar, Goldhammer describes how breastfeeding has the power to heal those suffering the effects of generational trauma, specifically through the release of oxytocin, subsequently allowing mothers and their babies to feel empowered and independent.

Photo by Luiza Braun

Kathleen Kendall Tackett’s work also illuminates how breastfeeding can heal trauma. Her videos, How Birth Trauma Affects Breastfeeding and Breastfeeding Can Heal Birth Trauma and Breastfeeding’s Healing Impact on Sexual Assault Trauma discuss the mechanisms behind why and how breastfeeding can be helpful for trauma survivors. Essentially, breastfeeding allows for the down regulation of stress responses, specifically adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol, and similar to exercise, improves maternal mood, decreases the risk of depression, decreases hostility, and improves the mother infant bond.

Jennie Toland, BSN, RN, CLC offers commentary on the role lactation care providers play in offering trauma-informed care in this piece.

This Invisibila episode, Therapy Ghostbusters, shares the incredible story of how a Cambodian practitioner worked to help heal an entire community from generational trauma. It took him over a year to simply earn individuals’ trust.

“…That’s pretty unique,” the podcast hosts point out and offers insight into how our nation approaches care for individuals with specific mental health needs and cultural considerations.

Goldhammer quotes Round Rock elder Annie Kahn:  “When a mother nurses her baby, she is giving that child her name, her story and her life’s song. A nursed baby will grow to be strong in body, mind and spirit.”

This connection to the past that Kahn refers to, also offers a form of healing. Breastfeeding is an example of Indigenous food sovereignty, “a part of living culture” and facilitates the revitalization of traditional knowledge. (Cidro, et al 2018)

The revitalization of breastfeeding spans the Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) experience and is a channel to champion equity.

Ifeyinwa V. Asiodu,  Kimarie Bugg,  and Aunchalee E.L. Palmquist write in Achieving Breastfeeding Equity and Justice in Black Communities: Past, Present, and Future:

“Breastfeeding is an especially important public health issue in Black communities, particularly given that Black families and communities continue to experience the highest burden related to poor maternal and infant health outcomes, including higher incidence of preterm birth, low birth weight, maternal mortality and morbidity, infant mortality, and lower breastfeeding rates. Owing to lifetime exposure of racism, bias, and stress, Black women experience higher rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and aggressive breast cancer. Given that cardiovascular disease and postpartum hemorrhage are leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity, increasing breastfeeding rates among Black women can potentially save lives.”

Photo by Emily Finch

More specifically, studies show that the experience of racial discrimination accelerates the shortening of telomeres (the repetitive sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the cell) and ultimately contributes to an increase in people’s risks of developing diseases.

It has been found that higher anxiety scores and inflammation are associated with shorter telomere length.

Because physical and psychological stressors trigger the inflammatory response system, one way to counter this reaction is by supporting ongoing breastfeeding relationships; when breastfeeding is going well, it protects mothers from stress. (Kendall-Tackett, 2007)

Another study found that early exclusive breastfeeding is associated with longer telomeres in children.

Photo by Luiza Braun

The authors of Achieving Breastfeeding Equity and Justice in Black Communities: Past, Present, and Future continue, “Yet breastfeeding is rarely seen as a women’s health, reproductive health, or a public health strategy to address or reduce maternal mortality and morbidity in the U.S. Inequities in lactation support and breastfeeding education exacerbate health inequities experienced by Black women, specifically maternal mortality and morbidity, and thus a greater investment in perinatal lactation and breastfeeding education and resources is warranted. Breastfeeding is an essential part of women’s reproductive health.”

Journalist and maternal child health advocate Kimberly Seals Allers’ approach is one “For Black people, from Black people.”

“…The call to revive, restore and reclaim Black breastfeeding is an internal call to action,” Kimberly Seals Allers begins in Black Breastfeeding Is a Racial Equity Issue.  “… Breastfeeding is our social justice movement as we declare the health and vitality of our infants as critical to the health and vitality of our communities.”

Specifically through her work with Narrative Nation, Seals Allers and colleagues are promoting health equity “by democratizing how the story of health disparities is told,” centering BIPOC voices. Additionally, through her Birthright podcast, KSA uplifts stories of  joy and healing in Black birth.

Especially after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, organizations made statements about their commitments to dismantling structural racism and focusing efforts on equity.

Equity has become a buzzword; in fact, one author brands the sentiment “Fakequity”. This year, United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) National Conference and Convening presenters expressed their fatigue with the word.

“We want to see action,” they said.

Nikki & Nikki LIVE offer their Allies, Advocates and Activists Equity in Lactation webinar which covers the meaning of equitable in lactation care, how to show up for the marginalized and how to make a lasting impact.

In other efforts, the CDC has identified breastfeeding as a priority area to address health inequities.

Photo by Luiza Braun

NICHQ’s Achieving Breastfeeding Equity campaign also focuses on closing breastfeeding disparity gaps, viewing their efforts through an equity lens.

Director of policy and partnerships at the National Women’s Health Network Denys Symonette Mitchell offers commentary on a way forward with key policies that will ensure investment in breastfeeding to ultimately advance health equity.

Watch Racism and the Colonial Roots of Gendered Language in Public Health and Biomedicine with Dr. Aunchalee Palmquist, PhD, IBCLC for more on these issues.  

 

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As part of our celebration, we are giving away an online learning module with contact hours each week. Here’s how to enter into the drawings:

Email info@ourmilkyway.org with your name and “OMW is 10” in the subject line.

This week, in the body of the email, tell us about how you are contributing to working toward healthy equity.

Subsequent weeks will have a different prompt in the blog post.

We will conduct a new drawing each week over the 10-week period.  Please email separately each week to be entered in the drawing. You may only win once. If your name is drawn, we will email a link with access to the learning module. The winner of the final week will score a grand finale swag bag.

“She was living, but she wasn’t alive”: May 4th marks World Maternal Mental Health Day

“‘I have too much mental health and breastfeeding support,’ says no family EVER!” Felisha Floyd of The B.L.A.C.K. Course has accurately asserted. Around the world, as many as 1 in 5 new mothers experience some type of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMADs).  Often, PMADs go unnoticed and/or untreated and can have tragic and long-term consequences to families and subsequently societies.

The World Maternal Mental Health (MMH) Campaign’s blog features the sometimes harrowing, sometimes triumphant stories of those enduring PMADs. 

“It didn’t look anything like what the brochures told me it would look like….For me, PPD/PPA was a sneaky vixen that tricked my mind into thinking that every new mom felt like this,” one contributor writes. “That I was living in a cruel joke of a world where no one tells you that as soon as that baby pops out, you will never feel the same way again. The sneaky vixen told me that we’d made a huge mistake. We weren’t supposed to have a baby. That what I thought I wanted more than anything my whole life, was something that just wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel like this baby I was holding was mine. It belonged to the universe but I wasn’t his mom.”

Another shares, “I would look into the mirror and wonder who was the person looking back at me.  She looked like me, but did not feel like me.  There was no spark in her eyes.  She was living, but she wasn’t alive.”  

May 4 marks World Maternal Mental Health Day, time to reflect on why we need to pay attention to maternal mental health, influence policy and drive social change, reducing the stigma of maternal mental health. 

Photo by Matthew Ball on Unsplash

The MMH Taskforce has curated a hub for individuals and organizations to find information about MMH and suggest a variety of ways to get involved including a social media toolkit with simple actions. 

Last year, the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance (MMHLA) compiled the Perinatal Mental Health Advocacy Toolkit,  “designed to help perinatal mental health (PMH) advocates understand the importance of their voices in raising awareness and influencing public policy to better support the mental health of women and other birthing people during the perinatal timeframe. Recognizing that advocacy and lobbying may sound scary or feel overwhelming, this Toolkit provides information and tools to empower advocates to tell their stories effectively, to build an advocacy network, and to put advocacy into action.” The document is complete with worksheets so that participants can build their own Toolkits with items like talking points, scripts for telephone calls, sample emails and letters, and more.

This work is of critical importance as we know that the health of mothers influences the health of the entire family. 

Dr. Beryl Watnick, PhD has pointed out that the “mother infant bond is of profound importance. The brain patterns in babies can mirror the brain patterns in depressed mothers, but when women with depression are taught how to engage their babies in spite of their depression, their children’s depressed brain patterns can reverse themselves. This is the power of parenting.” 

Although it is true that there is a vast amount of work to do in order to de-stigmatize maternal mental health and better support mothers and their families, there are also simultaneously a great deal of successes to celebrate. There are effective and well-researched treatment options available to help women recover, like breastfeeding. Individuals can connect with knowledgeable providers using Postpartum Support International’s database

One such provider is Jabina Coleman, LSW, MSW, CLC, IBCLC aka The Lactation Therapist, providing clinical support, resources and tools for the start of a successful breastfeeding journey and adjustment into parenthood. 

“Everybody Wants to Hold the Baby, Who Will Hold the Mother?” Coleman’s poignant credo. On her website, she lays out how to effectively hold mothers, with an emphasis on addressing the maternal mortality crisis that affects Black women who are dying three to four times the rate of their white counterparts.

In addition to the resources provided by the MMH Taskforce, MMHLA, and The Lactation Therapist, there are a variety of other opportunities to learn about and support MMH.

The Michigan Breastfeeding Network is hosting “Human Lactation and Mental Health: Best Practices” with presenters Tameka Jackson-Dyer, BASc, IBCLC, CHW, Rosa Gardiner, RN, IBCLC, Mistel de Varona, IBCLC, and Kara Smith, BSN, RN, CLC, PMH-C. You can register for the webinar here

Kathleen Kendall Tackett’s, PhD, IBCLC, FAPA presentation Does Breastfeeding Protect Maternal Mental Health? The Role of Oxytocin and Stress is available here

The American Heart Association, with funding support from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health program, is hosting a webinar titled “Mixing Milk + Meds: Assessing Infant Risk during Breastfeeding” on Wednesday, June 15, at 2 p.m. ET. Speakers from the Infant Risk Center will discuss how to evaluate which medications are safe for breastfeeding patients.