How do breastfeeding benches, lactation pods, “Breastfeeding Welcome Here” window clings signify a culture’s acceptance of breastfeeding in the wild? 

Ambling around my step-dad’s deceased brother’s home, a red canvas book caught my attention. “The Great Cars” its title. I thumbed through its musty pages without expectation of finding any passages of interest, but to my delight, a print of an early 20th century De Dion-Bouton cars advertisement depicting a breastfeeding dyad! Two other passengers look on attentively and lovingly. There’s nothing jarring about the scene (well, except no car seat or seat belts); instead, the mother and baby are seamlessly woven into the imagery, part of the motion of the moment captured.

A snapshot from the book

As I studied the page, a wistfulness washed over me; a longing for breastfeeding to (once again) be effortlessly infused into our existence. 

Instead, when I encounter a breastfeeding dyad in public, an awkwardness washes over me. I am thrilled and want to throw confetti, because this should be celebrated, and I am thrilled, draw my gaze away so not to gawk, because this is how babies are (almost always) intended to be fed and cared for. 

In the States, it seems we have been sitting at this cumbersome crossroad for quite some time, where breastfeeding is recognized as a good thing, and yet, we shame the act in public and design our lives in a way that makes breastfeeding impossible: no paid parental leave, harmful birthing practices, the unrestricted advertising of commercial formulas… 

For those of you who drive, have you ever been caught at a congested intersection, red traffic lights flash, each vehicle lurches forward just a few inches at a time and so you’re left to guess whose turn it is? When I encounter lactation pods, discreet breastfeeding benches and “Breastfeeding Welcome Here” window clings, this same uncertainty, an abruptness, hits me. 

Lactation pods now pepper public spaces, a gauge of living in Pump Nation (I think credit for this term goes to Kimberly Seals Allers.) The pods have been extolled for good for nursing the distractible, though as many have argued, “creating an object specifically to conceal breastfeeding, surely justifies the stigma” of breasts in public.   

This discreet breastfeeding bench was designed with this sentiment in mind, though it has also been criticized for divorcing dyads from full integration into society. The bench has also been criticized for its pink hue, which for some might seem a silly thing to focus on, and for others may be justified for colors’ sometimes incredible power.  

But as Natashah Hitti writes:  “‘Instead of isolating mums, Heer allows them to stay in the environment they want to be in and keep control of it,’ said [the designer]. ‘If mum has company, they can sit next to her. This is especially important for mothers with another child.’”

Photo by Luiza Braun

Breastfeeding benches installed in the Southwest are an emblem of celebrating breastfeeding in public and are coupled with other initiatives like accompanying QR codes with the Kansas Breastfeeding Coalition directory so that families can find the support they need based on their zip code and billboards. 

On various establishments’ windows– libraries, shops and cafes for instance– clings read “Breastfeeding Welcome Here” perhaps inadvertently reinforcing the reality that breastfeeding is not encouraged everywhere.  (Remember, it wasn’t until 2018 that breastfeeding became legal across all 50 states.)

The Australian Breastfeeding Association baby care room initiative circumvents this predicament in a way as it strives to enhance breastfeeding journeys through identification of venues equipped with proper feeding and care amenities in order to foster inclusive and supportive environments. These spaces are designated by a “Breastfeeding is Welcome Everywhere” sticker. That simple tweak in language seems to make a difference. 

In her final year as an Industrial Design student, Alanna Bamber was challenged to design a comfortable breastfeeding seat for the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. Bamber shares her process on the Ingenium Channel and writes: 

While lactation rooms are wonderful and provide a necessary function, they may embolden people who disapprove of breastfeeding in shared public spaces to say, ‘There is a place for that, why do it in the view of others? Cover up!’ I wanted to create a piece of furniture that acts as an invitation for mothers to breastfeed in a shared space, and in some small way contribute to a more positive perception of public breastfeeding.”

Photo credit: WIC Image Gallery

Bamber’s rendering features one armrest to “allow people of any body size to use the seat and prevent it from being an obstruction when nursing bigger children.” 

Further south, a Brazilian team creates an urban design to normalize breastfeeding. For me, their design evokes the same feelings of integration that the painting did, where accommodation does not sacrifice assimilation. 

 

 

“Mama’s got milk. Educate. Normalize. Nurse in Public!”

Their work is situated in the Proximity of Care Design Guide developed by Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation which helps urban planners, designers, developers, city leaders and early childhood development practitioners embed child and family-friendly design principles into their work.

In a final example, an example of how “all roads lead to breastfeeding”, Wanda Lau covers how architects, namely Kim Holden, AIA, CABC, CLC  founder of Doula X Design can transform birth and postpartum experiences in the U.S. through the built world.

For more, check out  Our Milky Way’s Empathy in architecture and ‘Being in a womb’ or ‘playing musical chairs’: the impact of place and space on infant feeding in NICUs by Renée Flacking and Fiona Dykes. 

Music in perinatal care and education

Her arms rested over the edge of the birthing tub, her laboring body buoyant in the water. Breathing through a contraction, her eyebrows furrowed slightly. Warm, dim light hummed throughout the room. A midwife, an assistant, her partner, and I floated through the suite offering her encouragement and support as she worked to bring her baby earthside. 

Photo by Rebekah Vos on Unsplash

Another wave of intensity swelled throughout her body. The “rhythmic sound of blood coursing through the uterine artery” was her baby’s surround sound. Simultaneously, the escalation of energetic strings on her playlist interrupted her concentration. She laughed. Something about the sound of this music struck her as funny, and she asked her husband to please advance the playlist. I sometimes think back to this little moment as evidence of how powerful music can be.

Then as her labor progressed, she produced her own music, a sound deep within that reverberated through the room, the vibrations of an ancient song.  

Elena Mannes, author of The Power of Music, has shown that “music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function.” 

Music can be used as a relatively low-cost, low-intervention tool in perinatal care. Though its use may seem innocuous, as with any tool, it should be used intentionally.  

 

Early on 

Photo by Greta Hoffman

Mannes points out that the “human relationship to sound starts early… The fetus begins to develop an auditory system between seventeen and nineteen weeks. Already, we are in a world of sound, of breath and heartbeat, of rhythm and vibration.”

She also highlights Dr. Sheila Woodward’s work which looked at the transmission of music into the human uterus and the human fetus and newborn response to music and found that a “fetus responds to a music stimulus from at least the 32nd week of gestation; and that the neonate alters the normal sucking pattern to activate longer periods of a music stimulus which has been repeatedly presented during the intrauterine stage and shorter periods of a novel music stimulus.”

Healthy Children Project’s Karin Cadwell shares a fond memory:  “I learned to play the guitar when pregnant with one kid. I wouldn’t exactly call what I was doing ‘music’ but it was probably rhythmic against my belly. She was only a few days old and I was mixing bread with a dough hook in my mixer and she was pushing her legs up and down exactly to the beat!” 

What’s more, the authors of Prenatal Music Exposure Induces Long-Term Neural Effects conclude that “prenatal exposure to music can have long-term plastic effects on the developing brain and enhance neural responsiveness to the sounds used in the prenatal training…Furthermore, we found that these plastic changes are long lasting, as the effect of prenatal exposure persists for at least four months without any additional stimulation.”

The authors declare some practical implications:  “… since the prenatal auditory environment modulates the neural responsiveness of fetuses, it seems plausible that the adverse prenatal sound environment may also have long-lasting detrimental effects. 

Such environments may be, for example, noisy workplaces and, in case of preterm infants, neonatal intensive care units. 

Furthermore, as prenatal exposure still affected the [event-related potentials (ERPs)] responses months after birth, additional fetal exposure to structured sound environments might be beneficial for supporting the auditory processing of, for example, infants at risk for dyslexia in whom basic auditory processing was shown to be impaired.”

 

Language learning 

Photo by Mălina Sîrbu

A more recent study looked at the language learning implications of prenatal music exposure. Sonia Arenillas-Alcón, et al conclude that their “findings support the idea that daily musical exposure during the last trimester of pregnancy is associated with enhanced encoding of low-frequency sound components, such as those typical of the fundamental frequency of human speech, that relate to pitch perception.” 

Matthew J. Traxler writes about prosodic (the rhythm and intonation of language)  features of language learning in Introduction to Psycholinguistics: Understanding Language Science. “Infants … appear to be endowed with perceptual and representational skills that enable them to tell the difference between different speech sounds from the moment they are born (or at most, within the first 24-48 hours),” Traxler writes. 

 

Music in therapy 

There’s compelling evidence that shows the importance of music as a therapeutic tool, like during labor and in other environments like the NICU.

Photo by Raul Angel on Unsplash

Marissa Rivera Bolaños recounts her experience with the didgeridoo during labor on the Womb Revolution blog: “…It resonates through your body as a non-touch massage…. During the birth, I just remember the sound was very grounding…. My husband played it directly into my belly while I circled my hips and sang my birth song. I felt like the vibrations were helping soften every cell of my body.” 

Andrea M. Cevasco , PhD, MT-BC, NICU-MT quotes a mother in The Effects of Mothers’ Singing on Full-term and Preterm Infants and Maternal Emotional Responses who said that knowing her infant listened to her singing helped her to cope with the baby’s stay in the NICU.

Jayamala AK, et al notes that their study results “suggest that music therapy has a positive effect in reducing stress in mothers of hospitalized premature neonates thereby increasing the amount of expressed breast milk. A relative increase in the amount of breast milk expressed is a boon to the premature baby for its growth and development as it requires additional nutrition. Music therapy being a non invasive method; can easily be used clinically as a method to increase breast milk secretion.” 

And the results of Caine’s work suggest that “music stimulation may have significantly reduced initial weight loss, increased daily average weight, increased formula and caloric intake, significantly reduced length of the NBICU and total hospital stays, and significantly reduced the daily group mean of stress behaviors for the experimental group.”

MUSIC AND HEALTH CARE: A Paper Commissioned by the Musical Connections Program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute by Lea Wolf, MSW and Dr. Thomas Wolf details how music enjoyed by patients can reduce staff stress too.  (p .13)  

Annie Jameson plays alchemy crystal singing bowls which produce resonance and help people de-stress, release anxiety and relax deeply, she says. Her music can be used alongside most therapies to induce tranquility, she adds. 

“Because the brain of each individual patient has absorbed musical building blocks of his or her local sonic environment in infancy and developed expectations and preferences based on this experience, choosing appropriate musical selections is an important challenge,” Wolf and Wolf write. 

This is particularly evident in the anecdote I share up top as I sat alongside my laboring friend. The same sounds conjured comedy in her brain, whereas I was unaffected. 

The authors go on to offer a strategy for music choice in health care. 

Music in perinatal education and normalization 

Song can serve as a way to share stories and lessons and influence popular culture. 

If you’ve completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC), you’ll be familiar with the jaunty  When you counsel tune which serves as a reminder to honor the mother as the expert of her baby(ies) and the agent of her decision-making. It  goes to the tune of Frère Jacques:

When you counsel
When you counsel 
Never judge 
Never judge 
Praise mother and baby 
Praise mother and baby 
Don’t command 
Do suggest 

If you’ve never heard T’Amentanefer Lumukanda Camara (TaNefer)’s viral “Teach Me How to Breastfeed” video, you’ll want to drop everything else to acquaint yourself. 

Equally entertaining is Sparrow Folk’s Ruin Your Day song, commentary on breastfeeding in public. 

On our Weird Findings installation, we shared a beautiful video from the Pokot community in Kenya which uses song to deliver a PSA about infant feeding. 

Finally, we prefer this version of Dua Lipa’s original: I’m Lac-a-tating.

Celebrating Pride

This summer, we are revisiting some of our previous publications as they relate to various national celebrations.  June is Pride Month, so this week we are elevating Glenis Decuir’s beautiful story about co-breastfeeding with her wife for  two-and-a-half years. This piece was originally published in 2022.

——

The lactation care provider glanced at her breasts and claimed, “You’re not going to be able to produce much milk.” Glenis Decuir, CBS, a young mother at the time, had just given birth to her first baby (now 17 years old), and while she intended to breastfeed her daughter, without explanation, without proper consultation and counseling, without a shred of compassion, the lactation consultant disparaged her intentions so tragically that Decuir not only did not breastfeed her daughter, she remained discouraged through the birth of her second child (now 14 years old) and did not breastfeed him either.

Decuir eventually learned that she has Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT) disorder.

“I knew my breasts looked different, but my mom’s looked the same as mine; I didn’t think anything was abnormal,” Decuir explains. “ I was young and wasn’t resourceful; no one explained anything.”

Though Decuir’s introduction to infant feeding was shrouded in the unknown and total neglect from care providers, her story takes a turn, epitomizing self-determination, advocacy and education, perseverance, resilience and empowerment.

In 2018, Decuir’s wife became pregnant with their third child. Because she would not grow and birth this baby, Decuir wondered how she would form a bond with him.

“It was very difficult for me to wrap my head around that,” Decuir shares.

Plunging into self-guided research, Decuir landed on the potential to induce lactation.

When she decided to embark on this path, Decuir reached out for guidance, but found herself in a void.

“Unfortunately, I received the most pushback from doctors, many of whom didn’t even know that inducing lactation was possible,” Decuir documents her road to co-breastfeeding. “I had to see four different doctors before I could find one willing to work with me. Being under the doctor’s care was very important because I had never done this before, and I knew I would be taking medications. After exploring several options, we chose the Newman Goldfarb Protocol as our method of induced lactation.”

For well over 20 weeks, Decuir delved into the protocol.

“Because I had really poor experiences with my first two and poor experiences with seeking help with breastfeeding professionals… I became an advocate… I had overcome so much adversity,” Decuir begins.

Laws state that we can pump anywhere, Decuir continues. And that’s what she did.

“I was pumping in every location imaginable! At my desk, in the car, the movie theater, Six Flags, and much more!” she writes.

Decuir goes on, “I decided to be very public about my entire journey on Instagram. One, I have the right to and I exercise every right, but it also opened a gateway to educating others.”

Prior to inducing lactation, Decuir reports that her children had never been exposed to anyone breastfeeding, “not even at a playground or anything,” she elucidates.

“This is how behind closed doors moms are with breastfeeding,” she says.

But Decuir and her wife’s approach is different; they are open-books with their children, she explains.

“They were old enough to understand scientifically, biologically, physically what my body was going to go through,” Decuir starts. “I educated them through a scientific standpoint, but also talked about normalizing breastfeeding. We talked about my daughter breastfeeding in the future, and my son and his role as a man in a household and how he can support his future wife to breastfeed.”

Decuir recalls the emotional and practical support her older children offered: “I cried in front of them, I pumped in front of them, I laughed in front of them; they helped wash bottles and Spectra parts…”

In sharing her journey with others though, Decuir wasn’t always met with such maturity and acceptance.

“I got everything under the sun,” Decuir remembers. Some told her it was disgusting, some found it weird, and some even went as far as to claim it child abuse.

Orion was born on September 2, 2018. At the time of his birth, Decuir was producing 16 ounces a day– quite close to what is considered full production– and had stored over 1,000 of her milk in a deep freezer.

Decuir says that she didn’t set forth focusing on the quantity though. “I wasn’t thinking about achieving full supply; I was thinking about producing anything. Even if it was only five ounces a day, I thought, I can at least do one feeding a day and that to me was worth it on its own.”

She continues: “Every time that I would latch Orion on, I just thanked Mother Nature and how amazing our bodies are. Maybe if I had birthed Orion, if I  had just latched him on, it wouldn’t have been a second thought, but because of what I went through–I worked real, real hard– every time I was able to latch my son, I literally thanked the universe. I was so grateful.”

Decuir and her wife went on to co-breastfeed Orion until he was two-and-a-half.

Throughout her breastfeeding relationship, Decuir remained visible in her efforts. “Having the power to go through that experience breastfeeding anywhere and everywhere in public, it became almost liberating and very freeing to be able to exercise my right, and in doing so I came across a lot of people. I took them as opportunities to talk more about breastfeeding and breastfeeding in public.”

At the start of her journey, in order to create her village, Decuir started a private Facebook support group. Today it has over two and a half thousand members.

Locally, Decuir serves as a breastfeeding support person through ZipMilk and is a ROSE Community Transformer, all on a volunteer basis. She has presented at the ROSE Summit in years’ past and is currently working on a book.

You can read Decuir’s former publications about her co-breastfeeding journey here and here .

More for Pride Month 

It’s Pride Month! Working to close the gaps in LGBTQ+ Care

Skin to skin image goes viral

Exploring language among gender nonconforming individuals and nontraditional partners

On Becoming Transliterate: An Interview with Diana West, BA, IBCLC

Celebrating World Refugee Day

This summer, we are revisiting some of our previous publications as they relate to various celebrations. World Refugee Day was honored on June 20 this year. As such, we are resharing our 2019 piece “Initiative empowers refugee and migrant women”.

——

Before Florence Ackey, MSW knew what public health was, she was inquisitive about prevention. Having lost her 12 year old cousin during her young childhood, she found herself perpetually asking “How can I make things better?”

A lifelong investigator and learner, Ackey completed two years of law school in her home country Niger followed by completion of the University of South Florida Master’s of social work. She is currently pursuing a second master’s degree and will begin her doctorate in public health in fall 2019. She recently completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC).

Ackey serves as the State Refugee Health Coordinator for the Florida Department of Health Immunization, and Refugee Services. In this position, she connected with a woman who would inspire her to found Refugee and Migrant Women’s Initiative (RAMWI), a not for profit 501(c)(3) which serves and empowers refugee and migrant women during their resettlement.

This particular woman would come to Ackey’s office almost every day and sometimes simply sit with her. Despite a language barrier, Ackey eventually learned that the woman was lonely and depressed; she couldn’t have children, and her husband was out of work.

These circumstances caused great strife, but connecting with Ackey uplifted her spirit.

Mindful of her mental health, Ackey helped cultivate a social circle around this woman. At the same time, Ackey was driven to incorporate a practical component to the gatherings,  so she taught the women to crochet.

“We made a lot of scarves,” she remembers. “We sold them and [the woman] was able to raise enough money to pay for two months rent. It changed her confidence.”

Ultimately, their informal, weekend meetings grew too large for home meetings, so RAMWI was created. Today RAMWI, run entirely by volunteers, has served over 400 families over roughly six years.

“It’s just beautiful to see how far we’ve come,” Ackey says.

Refugee and migrant women suffer from things like trauma, discrimination and anxiety.

Ackey explains: Often the story goes that the woman arrives with her husband and children from their home country; the husband finds work and grows a social life and the children go to school and make friends. In the meantime, the woman is left alone at home, sometimes too uneasy about the unfamiliarity of their new settlement to leave the confines of her home. Even when her family returns from their daily routines, she’s further isolated because their experiences become less and less common and relatable.

In light of this phenomenon, RAMWI offers corresponding, age-appropriate workshops for mothers and children in order to bridge conversation topics.

“The mom is no longer left alone; she has something she can contribute,” Ackey explains.

RAMWI offers its social, support network and classes and workshopsin a way that allows women to integrate into their new communities while still preserving their cultural identity. For instance, RAMWI’s Annual International Fashion Show during Welcoming Week offers refugees and migrant women the opportunity to share pride in their culture through clothing.

Participants pose during the Annual International Fashion Show during Welcoming Week
Photo courtesy of RAMWI

The show usually represents about 48 countries with over 80 participants.

Monthly support groups cover topics like women’s health, grief and coping mechanism, U.S. healthcare system and resources, nutrition, safety, domestic violence, disaster preparedness, life balance and personal finances among other topics.

Ackey emphasizes that female empowerment doesn’t need to be granted externally.

“Women have the power within in them to freely give,” she begins.

She goes on to describe a visual installation she’ll present at an upcoming RAMWI session to illustrate this idea.

Ackey asks participants questions like ‘Have you helped someone without anything in return?’ or ‘Have you paid a genuine compliment to someone?’ Each time a participant answers ‘yes’, she pokes a hole with a thumbtack into a blank board. The holes initially appear to be randomly placed, but when a light shines through the back of the board, the silhouette of a decorated city appears. The installation represents the seemingly small acts of women impacting entire communities.

This month, RAMWI members will assemble 240 care packages for the homeless.

RAMWI participants at a monthly meeting
Photo courtesy of RAMWI

When it comes to infant feeding, migrant women often look to formula as a status symbol. It’s a mindset Ackey encounters often, but she says the lactation counselor training course has equipped her to become a better healthy infant feeding advocate.

Ackey has also found that hospital staff generally do not take the time to discuss and educate migrant women about breastfeeding. She predicts this is sometimes due to language barriers.

“It’s easier to give them formula and go,” she explains.

Mothers are often happy with the “gift” of formula and all of the “swag” that can come along with formula feeding.

Surely birth and infant feeding culture varies greatly among the women in RAMWI, but Ackey has found that immigrant women tend to share the common value of a strong mother -child bond which stems from their collective upbringing, she explains.

Mother and child, one of Ackey’s favorite photos
Photo courtesy of RAMWI

She shares that this “it takes a village” mentality is reflected in the way they feed their babies.

“Women take care of all the children,” says Ackey.

In some cases, women breastfeed children that are not biologically their own in the spirit of shared duties, but for survival in other circumstances.

“Women breastfeed other children especially from some African countries,” Ackey begins.

She recalls one woman who adopted a child she picked up on the road next to the dead body of his mother. Ackey makes clear this imagery isn’t representative of the entire refugee population, but it is a story that embodies how the women she works with will raise any child.

Amidst the tragedy and hardship that many of the families have faced, there’s so much beauty and hope within RAMWI.

“Hope can, and will heal the world,” its mantra.

One volunteer said:  “The thing I love the most is the environment of support and empowerment that RAMWI creates for women from all over the world…the women learn from each other…form a bond that as women is something that connects you no matter where you are from.”

For Ackey, success is achieved when a woman makes a choice because she has been fully informed and she’s aware of all of her options.

Visit https://www.ramwi.org/ for more information. Connect with RAMWI on Facebook here.

Other relevant pieces

Prioritizing infant and young child feeding in emergencies during National Preparedness Month and beyond

To know is to do: retired nurse dedicates time to humanitarian aid in East Africa bringing awareness to the paradox of direness and vibrancy

A collection of stories by and about those in the AANHPI community

Caesarean Doulas: Implications for Breastfeeding at 24th Annual International Breastfeeding Conference & Nutrition and Nurture in Infancy and Childhood: Bio-Cultural Perspectives

Breastfeeding, peace and justice

Babywearing as a public health initiative

Celebrating Father’s Day

This summer, we are revisiting some of our previous publications as they relate to various national celebrations.  This week, we’re celebrating fathers with our 2017 piece “Fathers profoundly influence breastfeeding outcomes”, a piece highlighting Muswamba Mwamba’s, MS, MPH, IBCLC, RLC work with families.

——

At a WIC clinic a few miles north of Dallas in an immigrant community, a pregnant woman confided in a male peer counselor–part of the WIC Peer Dads Program— that she wanted to breastfeed her baby. Her boyfriend wasn’t at all interested in supporting this journey though. The counselor offered to speak to the father; the mother agreed, so the counselor called him just then. Ring, ring, ring. After introductions, this conversation ensued:

Counselor: We heard you have an issue with breastfeeding.

Father: So you are calling me to convince me that breastmilk is better?

Counselor: No, I just want to give you some information.

Father: I will come to your office. You prove to me that breastfeeding is better.

The next morning, the father arrived at the clinic before it opened.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

“Tell me why she should breastfeed,” the father demanded of the counselor, who was feeling rather intimidated.

The counselor replied: Forty-five years down the road, your unborn son is guaranteed to be the president of the United States. What are you going to do today?

The father looked at him perplexed and laughed.

“You tell me,” his retort.

The counselor handed him a sheet of paper instructing him to write these letters: B-R-E-A-S-T-F-E-E-D, providing corresponding ‘benefits’ to breastfeeding with each letter. (B is for bonding and so on.)

“Dude! You’re good,” the father exclaimed, changing his demeanor. “Ok, you got me,” he agreed to open his mind to breastfeeding.

Mwamba demonstrates ways to hold baby during a class for parents .

Muswamba Mwamba, MS, MPH, IBCLC, RLC, a public health nutritionist, told me this story during a fascinating interview for Our Milky Way. Having worked in nutrition for nearly three decades, Mwamba has acquired a brilliance for carefully interpreting and reflecting on the stories of the people he encounters.

“The guy was bold,” Mwamba remembers of the father. In fact, the father planned to dump his pregnant girlfriend after she became pregnant.

“A lot of men may know how to change diapers, know how to carry the baby,” Mwamba begins. “But something they don’t know is how to befriend the woman. When they don’t know, they run away.”

This couple’s story took a happy turn. Mwamba reports that they married with their peer counselor as their witness.

“You saved my relationship,” the father heartfully expressed his gratitude to the counselor.

After serving nearly 10 years as the City of Dallas WIC Peer Dads Program Coordinator, Mwamba is currently Director to Reaching Our Brothers Everywhere (ROBE), a descendant of Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE). ROSE and ROBE are dedicated to reducing breastfeeding disparities among African Americans.

But Mwamba’s career goals didn’t always point specifically to breastfeeding. Always fascinated by nutrition as the foundation of health, Mwamba found himself in a microbiology lab in Belgium completing two master’s degrees in Food Science and Technology and Agricultural Engineering & Human Nutrition.

He quickly realized that he “prefers people to mice.”  So when Mwamba, a Congolese native, came to the States in 1997, he searched for a doctoral program that might better fit his passion for behavioral science. Mwamba made his way to Columbia University in 1999 where he studied Nutrition Education, exploring the intersections between science and behavior, environment and genes.

At the time, Mwamba remembers being happy to be in the U.S. but in retrospect, he says he realizes he was naive about racial disparities in health care. It wasn’t until later that he learned about the historical forces in the United States that make health disparities a reality.

Mwamba pictured with colleagues Brenda Reyes and Mona Liza Hamlin.

“Thinking backward, I didn’t see anyone in my class who was local; they were all caucasian female,” Mwamba recalls.

Except for himself of course, the only Black man, and an immigrant at that. Institutions have policies written to encourage diversity, Mwamba begins.

“When they see Black, they see diversity,” he says. These policies ignore the heterogeneity of Black culture.

“As an immigrant, I was privileged when I got the scholarship,” he explains. Mwamba already held two master’s degrees and had seen the world. His experience was vastly different from those of the People of Color living in the community he was to serve.

“We have the same color of skin, but not the same stories, not the same backgrounds,” he reiterates.

Mwamba adds that African immigrants are the fastest growing and most educated group of immigrants in the U.S. From 2000 to 2004, four percent of immigrants in the U.S. were African. Today, African immigrants account for 8 to 10 percent, he reports.

Mwamba stresses, money needs to be properly allocated to serve those in need.

“The gap is increasing within the [Black] community,” he says of health disparities. “…Diversity is not the solution for the disparity.”

Little did he know, his opportunity to work to close this gap and to give a voice to “the folks who think they have nothing to say because nobody ever listened to them” was just around the corner.

Discussing a course’s simplicity with his professor at Columbia one day, a woman from Ghana happened to be listening in on their conversation. She was the director of a WIC clinic and recruited Mwamba as a nutritionist one year later.

Mwamba was instantly fascinated by the components of artificial baby milk, inspired by the questions his clients asked, and curious about the effects of clients’ infant feeding experiences.

He noticed that mothers who fed their babies formula often came to the clinic with various complaints.

Then there was a woman he remembers who exclusively breastfed her baby for one year. When she came in, she seemed happy and had only one concern: Why hadn’t her period returned yet?

Mwamba needed to do some research. He read everything he could. He worked to develop appropriate language to discuss infant feeding with his clients.

He began to grasp delicate intricacies like the sexualization of breasts in America. One client in particular expressed concern about her baby touching her “boobs.” (As a self-taught Anglophone, Mwamba never encountered “boobs” in his literature.)

As he discovered more and more about breastfeeding, he shared the information with his team. Mwamba became a breastfeeding champion.

In 2003, Mwamba moved to a WIC clinic in Dallas. Here, he received structured training through breastfeeding modules.

In 2005 he and his wife, an OB/GYN, welcomed their first babies to the world, a three pound baby girl and a four pound baby boy. Over the next couple of years, they added three more children to their family. Mwamba spent several months at home with their infants.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Aware that a primary reason a mother chooses not to breastfeed is her perception of the father’s attitude toward infant feeding, Mwamba launched the City of Dallas WIC Peer Dad program. The program was promptly a success.

Perhaps most importantly, the clinic was already breastfeeding-friendly. Secondly, there were several men already working in the clinic– including Mwamba who understood rich, complex immigrant culture. As Kimberly Seals Allers puts it, “The experience of being interpreted is different from the experience of being understood.”

Mwamba and his team worked by the motto Prepare, Equip and Empower.

They validated men in their role as a father and gave them tools like how to speak up and say, “Hello, I’m here!” when others failed to recognize their presence.

“Equip the father with tools they can use today,” Mwamba begins. “If you start talking about the future, they won’t get the information. Meet people where they are.”

Mwamba started conversations with his clients in an attempt to get fathers to connect with their relationships with their fathers; Emotion is more valuable than hard science.

For instance Mwamba describes one client, the father of five children, who “was over six feet tall with dreadlocks and his underwear showing.” He remembers this client had an air about him: I’m the dude here.

Mwamba discussed with him his role to protect and provide for his family. He asked, “Is there a man you look up to?” The father reported that he had a close relationship with his big brother. Mwamba wondered if he looked to his own father as a hero, or if he would change his relationship with his father. At that, the father’s voice cracked. He began to sob. This father was in the position to reflect on his role as a father and accept the influence he would have on his family.  And a father’s role is profound. When he is indifferent about breastfeeding, mothers will breastfeed 26 percent of the time; if he is pro-breastfeeding, mothers will breastfeed 98 percent of the time.

Tapping into the generalization that “men like the brag,” Mwamba and his colleagues encouraged their clients to spread forth their infant feeding experiences into their communities.

In his years working with the peer counselor program, Mwamba listened to stories that seriously question one’s capacity to have hope in humanity. In these moments, he didn’t have a script. Whatever rage he felt, whatever sympathy he bestowed, he couldn’t find a book or a module to learn how to accept the rawness, the vulnerability of his clients. Instead, Mwamba offered his presence and his willingness to listen, learn and understand.

Check out the rest of Our Milky Way‘s collection celebrating dads here.