Therapist integrates lactation counseling into perinatal mood disorder work

Too many of us know that many breastfeeding parents have poor experiences with lactation professionals which are often tied to “lactation professionals’ agenda”.

Others though feel heard and supported and find empowerment through their interactions with lactation care providers (LCPs). Of course there are experiences outside of and in between those too. 

In any case, new parents’ birth and breastfeeding experiences often inspire their own careers and life work, developing into a “pay-it-forward” kind of mission. 

Ericka Davis is a social worker at Centerstone’s Early Childhood Services (ECS) in Columbia, Tenn. who recently completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC).

Maternal and infant attachment and mental and physical health have “always been this lifelong knowing and passion,” as Davis describes it.  

“I think my own childhood adversity has always led me into wanting to work with moms and children and led me to social work,” she explains. 

As a new mother, Davis shares that she struggled with breastfeeding but managed through the challenges with the help of a CLC.

Her early breastfeeding experience starts like a lot of others: when her son did not latch in the hospital, the nurse told Davis that he needed to eat and gave them formula.    

I left the hospital with a bag full of sample formula bottles,” Davis says. 

Along with the formula, she had some familial support, but no support specific to breastfeeding.

“I often heard, ‘If it’s too hard or if you are in that much pain just give him the bottle,’” Davis goes on to explain. “I know it was coming from a good place;  they didn’t want to see me struggle and were worried about the baby. But I really wanted to nurse my son, I wanted to give him the best start.”

Davis soon found a La Leche League lactation café.

“I was able to go super early in the morning to this serene space full of rocking chairs, water, bowls of candy, other moms with their babies and get support from a CLC,” she reports.  “It made all the difference, to have someone who was trained in breastfeeding support me. I was able to successfully nurse my son after that and with my second child I was more confident in myself and nursed him longer. I credit my success to that café, that CLC.”  

Davis adds, “This experience is just another that has led me into this field. I see the value in CLCs and nursing, and I am happy I can give back in a small way.” 

In her work with ECS at Centerstone, a not-for-profit health system providing services designed specifically for those in the perinatal period, Davis and her colleagues aim to strengthen families’ physical, mental and emotional health primarily through in-home services. 

Davis works as a therapist on the team and networks with other dedicated professionals like a psychiatric nurse who provides medication management, for example. 

She and her colleagues recognize that the most effective approach to reaching their goal of strengthening families is by addressing their basic needs as well as addressing their mental health through therapy; therapy alone is not effective if families don’t have their basic needs met, so they provide wrap-around services. 

As CLCs, Davis, along with the majority of her clinic’s early childhood staff, are able to integrate lactation counseling into their perinatal mood disorder work.  

“It’s such an amazing tool to have as a provider to be able to understand and recognize that moms are struggling with something that you can really provide help and support with,” Davis says of becoming a CLC. “It’s another technique in my therapeutic modalities, another tool that I can really implement that alleviates some of those feelings surrounding breastfeeding and help someone be successful.”  

Failed lactation and perinatal depression often go hand in hand, but perinatal mood disorders (PMDs) go beyond this box. There can be a layering effect too, Davis explains. 

In her own experience, she shares that challenges associated with PMD coupled with breastfeeding challenges “added constant pressure and the thought  ‘I am failing.’” 

The work that Davis and her colleagues are doing through Centerstone is a sort of microcosm of an ideal world where families’ mental health is nurtured. 

“It comes from a comprehensive approach,” she begins. “We are talking about a complete cultural shift and policy change where businesses get on board with the importance of maternal infant health, where we can provide moms very safe spaces, and enough time [with their babies], destigmatizing what breastfeeding looks like out in public and normalizing it in society. Policy has to back up ideology.”  

Davis goes on to say that good support looks different for every family, echoing an article she recommends by University of Alberta’s Stephanie Liu’s commentary Breastfeeding struggles linked to postpartum depression in mothers

Liu writes: 

“As parents, we intend to provide the best for our babies, so difficulty breastfeeding may lead to significant amounts of stress.

As a family doctor, I know that breast milk is the optimal feeding choice for health benefits, but as a mom, I know the extreme pressures that we are placed under as women to produce milk every time our baby needs it.

This is why I always support the idea to breastfeed if you can, to reach out for support, and if you are struggling, there are other safe and healthy options to ensure your baby is well fed.”

In her practice, Davis is acutely aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding for mom, baby and public health, but she says she acknowledges that it’s not always the best option for everybody. 

“While we want to support people in their goals, we have to make sure that they are personal goals… I can’t push my agenda [as a LCP],” Davis comments. 

When LCPs want their clients to breastfeed more than they actually want to, it adds pressure, even if well-intentioned. 

“It can go so extreme that it ends up not being helpful and productive and sometimes even becomes harmful,” Davis adds, circling back to earlier mentioned poor experiences with LCPs. 

Recently, Davis has been able to help a young mother achieve her breastfeeding goal of six months, despite pressure from her family to give up. 

“We took it week by week,” Davis explains. “She got to her goal and it was perfect for her.”

Click here for Centerstone’s ECS Program Flyer —>TN Early Childhood Services – English

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