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.

For many, grandmothers are the village

Reflecting on her experience as a first-time grandmother, one of my colleagues and mentors expressed that, for most of us, “grandmothers are the closest thing to a village that we have.”

This colleague, a lactation care provider herself,  described the intricacies, sweetness and sacredness of watching her daughter step into motherhood. My colleague’s notes described her thoughtful presence without overbearance, leaving space for her daughter and her new family to learn and to bond. For instance, she cleans the house, prepares their bed with sun-dried sheets, and sits at the foot of the bed while her daughter and granddaughter nurse. In this dreamy scenario, grandma, baby and parents are all met with challenges, however those challenges haven’t become insurmountable thanks in part to this level of grandmotherly support and care.

This week we bring to you some work that details grandmothers’ powerful influence on the perinatal experience and beyond. A 2016 systematic review found that “a grandmother’s positive breastfeeding opinion had the potential to influence a mother up to 12 % more likely to initiate breastfeeding. Conversely a negative opinion has the capacity to decrease the likelihood of breastfeeding by up to 70 %.”

Healthy Children Project’s own Barbara O’Connor, RN, BSN, IBCLC, ANLC – Faculty Emerita designed and authored the Grandmothers’ Tea Project for the Illinois State Breastfeeding Task Force (2011).

Through O’Connor’s interactive curriculum, grandmothers are invited to learn about breastfeeding through three activities that pose breastfeeding scenarios:

“The Grandmothers’ Apron activity updates grandmothers’ knowledge about the importance of breastfeeding.

During the Grandmothers’ Cell Phone activity, grandmothers talk about breastfeeding myths and barriers.

In the Grandmothers’ Necklace activity, participants create a beaded necklace to remind them of ways they can offer support through loving encouragement, updating their breastfeeding knowledge, and being helpful.” (As described in A Grandmothers’ Tea: Evaluation of a Breastfeeding Support Intervention)

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.

Author Jane S. Grassley, RN, PhD, IBCLC and colleagues encourage perinatal educators to explore the curriculum for A Grandmothers’ Tea as they found that grandmothers and mothers who attended the teas in their study enjoyed their interactions with one another and with the class content.

Their work also unearthed a phenomenon of defensiveness in grandmothers who did not breastfeed their own children. The authors explain  “Grandmothers who did not breastfeed may feel defensive about their infant-feeding decisions because of the current emphasis on the health benefits of breastfeeding (Grassley & Eschiti, 2007)”  and advise that “perinatal educators can invite grandmothers to share their experiences and validate the cultural context in which these experiences took place.”

In this realm of validation and healing, Midwife Andrea Ruizquez of Partera Midwifery explores the implications of the Mother Wound. On Partera Midwifery’s Instagram page, Ruizquez writes:

“Props to all the people navigating complicated mother child relationships as adults. Now that I am in my 40’s I find myself reconnecting with my own mother in a deeper way. There was a time when we were estranged from each other. I learned how to recognize that I needed boundaries and practiced maintaining them. I am learning not to get triggered by my mother’s ways, and have compassion for her reasons behind them. I extend this sentiment to all of my grandmas ancestors who are in my lineage.

I am having more compassion for myself, and the ways I am like her my mom. I am learning to love myself deeper and become a more conscious mama to my children. I am still learning to love my child self that did not get all of her needs met, and I reparent myself with love. I feel myself heal.”

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.

Cultural beliefs held by grandmothers have the potential to influence healthy infant feeding practices. In Grace Yee, Retired IBCLC and Tonya Lang’s, MPH, CHES, IBCLC  Cultural Dimensions in Promoting, Protecting, and Supporting Lactation in East Asian Communities, they explained the prominent roles of aunties and grandmothers in the early postpartum. One example includes how colostrum is sometimes regarded in older generations as impure or unhealthy. Yee and Lang suggest that instead of positioning tradition and culture as a hindrance, to reframe barriers to breastfeeding into potential strengths. Respect of elders’ traditions and cultural practices will establish trust and foster positive relationships, as noted in Monique Sims-Harper, DrPH, MPH, RD, IBCLC, Jeanette Panchula, RN PHN, BA-SW, and Patt Young’s, Health Educator, CLE work entitled It Takes A Village: Empowering Grandmothers as Breastfeeding Supporters.

The physiological imprint of breastfeeding withstands generations and the sensations of milk production may surface decades later as mothers become grandmothers. Grandmothers who have previously breastfed have reported the tingling sensation of a phantom milk release when holding their grandchildren.

In South Sudan, grandmothers are relactating to help manage severe acute malnutrition. This practice has been documented elsewhere like Natal, South Africa and Vietnam for example.

Barry Hewlett and Steve Winn’s study on allomaternal nursing indicates that while this practice occurs in many cultures, “it is normative in relatively few cultures; biological kin, especially grandmothers, frequently provide allomaternal nursing and that infant age, mother’s condition, and culture (e.g., cultural models about if and when women other than the mother can nurse an infant or colostrum taboos) impact the nature and frequency of allomaternal nursing.”

Photo by Наталия Игоревна from Pexels

For an illuminating anthropological perspective, read A Biocultural Study of Grandmothering During the Perinatal Period by Brooke A. Scelza and  Katie Hinde. Their “findings reveal three domains in which grandmothers contribute: learning to mother, breastfeeding support, and postnatal health and well-being” and “show that informational, emotional, and instrumental support provided to new mothers and their neonates during the perinatal period can aid in the establishment of the mother-infant bond, buffer maternal energy balance, and improve nutritional outcomes for infants.”

We would love to learn about your perinatal and infant feeding experiences as grandmothers or with grandmothers. If you’d like to share, please email us at info@ourmilkyway.org.