Glints of hope and control in a burning world

As I gathered my thoughts for an Earth Month and infant feeding installment, I got an email notification that Valerie McClain had published something new on her Substack. Of course I hurried over, because her pieces are always illuminating. She writes in Standing on the Precipice:  “We are self-destructing on our Mother Earth, and she may be the last woman standing amidst the rubble and miles of corpses.”

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-little-kid-touching-tree-with-hand-3932861/

In all of the pieces and years past that we have covered the connections between infant feeding and planetary health, it never actually occurred to me that there might be a scenario where Mother Earth outlives us. This will surely strike some of you as naive, absurd, delusional, or something else considering what has happened and continues to happen on our planet. Even so, I envisioned humans dying alongside our planet, our self-destruction agonizing and inevitable, as we claw, infect, and deplete Mother Earth with our beastly antics, taking down the innocent in our path to complete decimation. 

On a recent trip to The Museum of Modern Art, I was shaken out of this sense of Doom and flurry of eco-emotions. Victor Grippo’s lead containers with beans first spoke to me, metaphors “for the force and persistence of life”. This display coupled with Niki de Saint Phalle’s phrase “What is now known was once only imagined” infused me with a little glint of hope that I’ve been craving. 

Then on a Throughline episode about consumer protections and trust in and accountability from companies and elected leaders, I heard the voice of Ralph Nader. He offered: Cynicism is “a cop-out. That’s an indulgence. That’s an indulgence of quitters that makes them feel good. Because when you’re cynical, you’re obviously smart, aren’t you? You think you’re smart. No, you’re not smart. You’re playing into the hands of the corporate supremacists. You’re playing into the hands of the few who want to control the many who could easily outvote the few and make the corporations our servants, not our masters.” This offered me a shift in perspective too.

Source: https://www.gifa.org/en/international-2/green-feeding/

Among the hopeful is coverage of the Green Feeding Tool by Kristi Eaton. Eaton quotes Julie Smith, co-creator of the tool: “…with the Green Feeding Tool—designed to provide policymakers, climate scientists, advocates and others with clear data about how increasing support for breastfeeding can help save the planet—we have the evidence to support action.”

Now, consider this headline: Breast milk can expose babies to toxic ‘forever chemicals’

“For decades, physicians and scientists have touted breast milk as liquid gold for its immunological benefits.

But nursing parents with considerable exposure to cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,’ or PFAS, may unwittingly be exposing their babies to these compounds as well…” the author begins. 

The article acknowledges contaminated water could be a potential source of PFAS which infant formula is often mixed with. The author also includes that “the benefits of nursing likely outweigh the potential risk of PFAS exposure through breast milk.” [Note the language used here. There are generally no benefits to breastfeeding. Instead, there are risks associated with not breastfeeding.] 

Nikki Lee asks some important questions: “Why doesn’t formula get tested for these chemicals?  Do folks believe that somehow cows are protected against pollution?”

As with anything, there will be risks associated with any variation of infant feeding. 

Healthy Children Project’s Karin Cadwell points out that if toxins are being detected in human milk, it means we need to reconsider the products being used in industry.

Photo by willsantt: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-breastfeeding-her-toddler-under-the-tree-2714618/

The author of Study Finds High Levels of Toxic Chemicals in Mothers’ Breast Milk quotes Erika Schreder, science director at Toxic-Free Future who shares a similar sentiment: “’If we want to make pregnancy and breastfeeding safe and free from PFAS, we really need to eliminate the use of these chemicals and products, so that we can have clean food, clean air, and clean water… We really don’t believe that responsibility should be placed on individuals when we need regulations to end the use of these chemicals.’”

In the predicament(s) we find ourselves in, I’d like to leave you with a few more of McClain’s words: “A mother cannot control events such as: wars, sieges, shortages of infant formula and pitocin, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes; but she has a semblance of control in her and her baby’s world through breastfeeding. Dependency on always having access to infant formula, health care, freedom from human or environmental violence, should be tempered with the reality that there may be times, when all the civility of life vanishes.” 

More for Earth Month 

Industry lies and the Code

Infant feeding and planetary health go hand in hand 

Breastfeeding is eco-friendly 

Goats and Soda’s How do you keep calm and carry on in a world full of crises?



Rambling about breasts

This week, I’m coming to you with some sort of ramble, an entry of things that have brought me joy over the last few weeks, all breast-related of course.

Wrought iron (assumed unintentional) breasts on Milwaukee building

To begin, a dear friend recently messaged me to share about a date she’d been on. She and the guy got on the topic of breastfeeding; she told him about how a mom’s body and baby’s saliva communicate to influence antibodies. 

“He shared [the info] with a friend who said she was going to switch to pumping her six month old because he got teeth,” she told me. “I was like wow, seriously, that is awesome. But then I also told him not to pump-shame!” 

Art positioned at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, Calif.

On another evening, I was at my kids’ grade school function in a circle with four other parents discussing Doomsday. What might it look like? we wondered. What’s the best approach to survival? What kind of supplies might we need? What will happen to currency? Isn’t it true that Hell is already here on Earth for so many? Breastfeeding and my milk were my answer to any distressing moment when I was lactating. Pink eye? Squirt some breastmilk on it. Kid scraped a knee? Breastfeed. Tumultuous bedtime? Breastfeed. And we know that breastfeeding is a lifeline in any true emergency situation. So I added to the Doomsday discussion, suggesting that I might work on relactation, mostly kidding but also reminiscing about how it used to fix all of my problems. One of my peers gasped, “Oh my god! Is that possible?!” I described how relactation could be possible for some. It was decided that this could be our savior in the event of an apocalypse.

El Niño advertisement at the Lincoln Center features breastfeeding Madonna

Then, last weekend, at an extended family gathering, we all oohed and aahed while the darling 10-month old at the table enjoyed his meal. My oldest daughter, 12, asked what her favorite food was when she was around his age. I thought about it, not remembering anything specific except, “The breast!” My kids liked nothing more than nursing. This embarrassed my daughter, but the rest of us had a good chuckle, and it was good to remember a time when my now preteen only wanted to be with me. 

The other sources of joy that I’d like to share with you come from the internet. 

I’ve been moved by and admiring these provoking, stunning pieces of art:

The Lactation Station 

Breastfeeding with Mother 

Workday Madonna with Child 

My Nurse and I 

Milky Way 

The Harvest

The Awakening Series 

Equally entertaining is an Instagram post by Dr. Katrina Mitchell: “​​The world’s most perfect dog toy: a burning bra, ‘Bite the Patriarchy’”.  

Pregnant belly formation at Crystal Caves on Grand Cayman Island

Then there’s Atlas Obscura which I frequent for oddball attractions in my area and across the globe. This week I came across the Mama Kannon Temple, a Buddhist temple in Japan dedicated to breasts. Somehow, this discovery led me to learn about the legend of Difunta Correa in Argentina. I’ve added both to my travel bucket list. 

And finally, I happened upon the Museum of Motherhood in St. Pete, Fla. It has a boob chair. This brings me immense joy, and I hope it’s a bright spot in your life too. 



Trauma-informed care

More awesome graphics at: https://stores.praeclaruspress.com/free-posters-and-graphics/

Johanna Sargeant’s BA, BEd, IBCLC Mastering Lactation Conversations: Creating Successful and Achievable Care Plans is an excellent reminder of compassionate and effective counseling. Early in her presentation, Sargeant unpacks the perception that lactation care providers (LCP) can sometimes desire breastfeeding “success” more than the clients themselves.

As LCPs, it can be easy to get wrapped up in checklists and targets and “perfect” latches, forgetting about the complexity of the human experience and how infant feeding is inextricably influenced by parents’ lived experiences. Parents must be allowed to define their own terms of success, and as LCPs, we must honor the complexity of their lives. 

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month which is as good a time as any to focus on trauma-informed care, which should be the standard of care for all perinatal services.  

Sexual trauma is common and affects approximately 20 to 25 percent of women, according to  Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC. 

Image by Nadezhda Moryak

“Abuse survivors can experience a full range of responses to breastfeeding: from really disliking it to finding it tremendously healing, “ she writes in an Uppity Science Chick publication.

All of those many years ago that I completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC), one of the most striking bits I took away was learning about the “hands off” approach. I was perplexed that this even needed to be emphasized( though I had experienced a “handsy” LCP after the birth of my first daughter and have so many friends who share similar experiences.)

These cloth breasts are a solution to demonstration without touching people’s bodies. (It is advised to exercise care when dealing with breast models in childbirth and breastfeeding education as the symbolic dismembering of the female body can carry powerful negative messages.)

Jennie Toland’s BSN, RN, CLC article on trauma-informed care reminds us that acknowledging the existence of trauma and its effects is the first step LCPs can take to providing proper care.

“Recognizing signs such as anxiety or emotional numbing can prompt further discussion that builds trust and fosters collaboration and engagement,” Toland writes. “…It can be as simple as asking if someone would prefer the door shut for privacy, positioning ourselves so we are not standing over another person when performing assessments, or verbalizing next steps and asking for consent to move forward…. It can happen within just a few seconds as we ask, ‘What is your preference?’ to provide someone with control over their care.”

[Here’s an older piece that explains how the simple prompt “May I?…” changed the way I view healthcare.]  

Toland writes that trauma-informed care does not need to be complicated, and the approaches she suggests aren’t specific to any one kind of trauma. 

While birth and breastfeeding can be remedial and healing for trauma survivors, these experiences can also be the source of abuse and trauma. 

Dr. Gill Thomson’s work describes this phenomenon. 

Dr. Karen Scott’s work through Birthing Cultural Rigor challenges the reality of maternity care for Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). Indeed,  “We cannot fix the maternal mortality problem without fixing the human rights problem at its core.

There are so many others acknowledging trauma and incorporating compassionate care. In Milwaukee, BOMB Doulas are providing wrap-around care services, thorough screenings like the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and sensitive, respectful care.

Photo by Mateusz Dach: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-baby-on-mother-s-arm-4504005/

The White Ribbon Alliance UK offers programming like Safer Beginnings which includes Free From Harm for maternity workers which works to address obstetric violence.  

There are those like Audrey Gentry-Brown, Full Spectrum Birth Sista, Certified Blactation Educator (CBE), Student Midwife, and Medicine Woman in Loudoun County, Va. working to  rewrite cultural norms within her community, introducing “Afrofuturist healing modalities” that reconnect to “ancestral magic.” 

Xavier Dagba’s words embody her work well: “As you focus on clearing your generational trauma, do not forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than just wounds.” 

Photo by Serdi Nam: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-of-mother-breastfeeding-baby-19178588/

Shawn Ginwright, a Black clinician, shares a similar ethos in a piece that challenges traditional approaches to trauma-informed care by exploring the distinction between simple ‘treatment’ and true healing.

“A healing centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question that moves beyond ‘what happened to you’ to ‘what’s right with you’ and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events,” Ginwright writes. “Healing centered engagement is akin to the South African term ‘Ubuntu’ meaning that humanness is found through our interdependence, collective engagement and service to others. Additionally, healing centered engagement offers an asset driven approach aimed at the holistic restoration of young peoples’ well-being. The healing centered approach comes from the idea that people are not harmed in a vacuum, and well-being comes from participating in transforming the root causes of the harm within institutions.” Essential reading! 

Other relevant resources and articles 

School Age Parenting Program nurses complete Lactation Counselor Training Course enhancing support for students

Spring can be an especially busy time for pregnant and parenting teens. There’s prom, Easter egg hunts, Eid al-Fitr, Holi, Passover and other festivities,  the summer school enrollment process, all alongside their typical school responsibilities. Then there’s the excitement of pending graduation for some. 

Nurse Michelle and Nurse Ashlee

Michelle Alkinburgh, BSN, RN and Ashlee Anzalone, RN, health care coordinators at the Racine Unified School District’s School Age Parenting Program (SAPAR), recently completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) in an effort to further support their students who are managing the multiplicity of being pregnant or parenting in high school. 

The duo is proud to report that many of their young parents choose to breastfeed even while juggling all of their other demands.

“We have many moms who breastfeed the first few weeks and have had three moms who breastfed for a year!” they exclaim.  

In the U.S., one estimation suggests that of the  “approximately 425,000 infants born to adolescents… only 43 percent will initiate breastfeeding, in contrast to 75 percent of mothers of adult age…” [Kanhadilok, et al, 2015]

Over 30 years ago, the state of Wisconsin required school districts to provide programming and services to school-age parents. As such, SAPAR  programming has been in place since the requirement was established.  

SAPAR is intended to retain pregnant and parenting students in school, promote academic progress, increase knowledge of child development and parenting skills, improve, decision-making regarding healthy choices, prevent subsequent teen pregnancies and child abuse and neglect, including that of the teen mother, and assist in post-secondary education and/or employment.  The program is open to all students under the age of 21 years who are not high school graduates and are parents, expectant parents or have been pregnant during the last 120 days. [Retrieved from https://rusd.org/academics/alternative-programs/pregnant-parenting-teens

Alkinburgh and Anzalone report that they average around 100 enrolled students each year.  During the 2022/23 school year, they served 104 students.

Healthy Children Project’s Carin Richter notes that programs like SAPAR aren’t often sustained for as long as Racine’s programming; instead,  they’re often met with a lot of opposition and are frequently cut from school budgets, she observes.

“I am impressed with the school district that promotes her program and the school board, PTA, and school staff that encourage this type of program,” Richter offers. 

The team comments on their strength and sustainability: 

“[Our program] has two nurse case managers with extensive knowledge and experience in maternal and child health, allowing us to help when medical issues arise, not just for our parents but also their children.  We provide health education, childbirth and parenting classes, and assist with community resources and academic needs.  We work together as a team with our students, families, school staff, medical providers and community partners.  

The national average graduation rate for teen parents is about 50 percent,  but our program changes that!  Last year 94 percent  of our eligible Seniors graduated providing more job opportunities, financial stability and college or apprenticeship options. Teens 15 to 19 years old also have higher rates of infant mortality and maternal complications. We had zero percent.”

Students Anika Moreno and Gregory Sanders Jr. pictured with their child.

Each work day is different for the duo. There are no defined hours and they often work with students for several years.  

“Our work requires a lot of flexibility and patience, but it is so rewarding to see our students succeed,” they begin. “We provide school visits throughout the district, and also phone, virtual, home and community visits to meet the individual needs. You may find us busy helping students get health insurance, find a medical provider, manage pregnancy symptoms to stay in school, check a blood pressure, obtain a medical excuse, meet with support staff, talk to a parent, help enroll in community programs, get a crib or car seat, find diapers, etc.  We may be assisting with childcare, nutrition, housing, employment or transportation needs.  We also do a lot of health teaching and use evidenced-based curriculum specifically designed for young parents to help them learn and have an opportunity to earn additional credit toward graduation. Our goal is that our students stay in school, graduate high school and have healthy babies.”

Teenage dads can get a bad rap, but Alkinburgh and Anzalone note that “they really want to be great dads.” The nurses offer individual, joint and group meetings for young fathers and cover topics like infant care, co-parenting, child support, etc.  

“We try to make learning fun and engaging,” the duo says. “For example, we may have a diaper changing race or have them practice giving a baby a bath with our infant model and newborn care kit.” 

To add to their skill-base, the team needed to do some unlearning about breastfeeding myths through the LCTC.  

“Now that we know the newest research-based facts, we can best educate our students,” they say. “We already started using the awesome counseling skills they taught us in the training and it has really helped us ask more open- ended questions to address students’ concerns and goals.” 

Overall, the nurses have experienced a positive attitude for breastfeeding in their community at large. For instance, the district offers private lactation rooms in each of their schools for staff and students to use when needed. 

For those interested in supporting the program’s mission, the team offers: “Be kind, supportive and share with others how truly valuable a program like ours really is!” They also suggest donating, volunteering or partnering with community organizations that help support their students  like the Racine Diaper Ministry, Salvation Army, Cribs for Kids, Parent Life, Halo, and United Way. 

Find the program on Facebook here.

Where are they now? Catching up with Lucy Ellen Towbin, LCSW

Towbin admires her grandchild in this recent photo.

Many of Lucy Ellen Towbin’s, LCSW endeavors are defined by nourishment. By the time she was two, Towbin was producing art and as she has continued to make multimedia art into her 70s, she nourishes her Self. As the eldest of four children, Towbin helped provide for her
younger siblings in their childhood. In her 30s, as a new mother,  she nourished her children.  As a social worker and lactation care provider, she supported other dyads in their infant feeding efforts. Later, Towbin started a business (which has since been sold) that offers clean, dehydrated parrot pellets, so that she and other parrot-owners could escape reliance on industry-produced pet food which usually contains additives and food coloring that parrots are particularly sensitive to.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Towbin retired from the
Arkansas Health Department, and while she no longer holds her IBCLC
credential, she continues to assist new mothers informally. Towbin now
practices as a part-time therapist for a psychotherapy clinic in
Arkansas.

The last time Towbin graced Our Milky Way was back in 2017 when we
featured the breastfeeding art contest she facilitated through the
Arkansas Breastfeeding Coalition.

We’re pleased to have chatted with Towbin as part of our Where are they
now? series. Responses have been edited for brevity.

 

Towbin poses with Ruth Lawrence roughly a decade ago.

How did you become interested in maternal child health? 

The first job I had at the Department of Health was as the refugee health program coordinator. We worked with mostly refugees from Southeast Asia.  I was really interested in and intrigued  by the difference in how
they were taking care of their children. They slept with their babies, which I’m sure plenty of people in the U.S. still did quietly, but back then, no one was talking about it.
During a panel discussion we once held, a speaker from Laos shared
that his six children born in Laos were breastfed, and the five children
born in the States were bottle-fed. This is when I really became
interested in the cultural aspects that affect infant feeding, and I started
to try to figure out what was going on.

Is there a current trend, project or organization that excites you?

I’m really not that up-to-date about trends in lactation, but what does
excite me are the portable pumps that working moms can wear. A close
friend of my daughter’s is a nurse practitioner and she showed me her
pump that she wears under her white jacket as she walks around seeing
patients. It makes almost no noise and it’s amazing because you don’t
even know that it’s under there. That would’ve been so incredible for me
to have as a working breastfeeding mom.

When I was working outside of the home, it was really difficult; even La
Leche League wasn’t very supportive of working moms at the time. With
my first child, I had a manual pump and my own office, but the pump was
miserable.  It hurt and wasn’t that effective. With my second child, I
stayed home longer with him and then he wouldn’t take a bottle, so I
didn’t do that much pumping. When I went back to work, my mother took
care of him and she lived close to where I was working, so I would nurse
him before work, and then drive back and forth to her house to feed him
about every two hours. It was a lot of back and forth.

What is the most significant change you’ve noticed within maternal child
health?

I have a very small sample size to talk about significant changes. All I
know is from my daughter and her friends. I’ve noticed that there seems
to be less unmedicated births happening in the hospital. I know there are
still a lot of people choosing home birth. But of those having babies in
the hospital, I haven’t heard about anyone doing what I did and having
mine in the hospital, but with no pain medicine or IV or anything.   I was
lucky to find the physicians that I did who went along with my wishes.  I
would expect there would be more supportive physicians now and instead, I don’t hear about any. I do want to reiterate that my observations are based on just a small group.

What is your best piece of advice for the next generation of lactation
care providers?

The most helpful lesson combines my training as both a therapist and
lactation consultant. New mothers need so much emotional support.
They don’t need people to take care of the baby. Bringing food and running errands for them is helpful. But I think what gets overlooked is
how much they need to be told that they’re going to make it, that they will
survive this early period of no sleep, and not knowing if they are doing a
good job. They need reassurance that this difficult time is normal and
they need to be told they will get through this.

My best piece of advice for the next generation is to take a holistic
approach, don’t just emphasize the physical exam. Equally important is
how much sleep the mother is getting,  what she is eating, if she is
getting exercise, if she has family and friends supporting her, if she has a
plan for if she’s going to be working outside of the home. It’s important to
equip new moms with coping strategies like easy breathing exercises or
something when she is feeling stressed that are doable in short time
frames and at home.

Where do you envision yourself in the next decade?

Asking someone my age where I see myself in the next ten years is
basically just hoping I’m still healthy and active! I do all the right things
and have good genes, so I’m on the pathway to that, but you never
know. Appreciate good health and youthful energy if you still have it.