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.

Where are they now? Lessons from ruins with Carin Richter RN, MSN, APN-BC, IBCLC, CCBE

Photo by Aykut Eke on Unsplash

The peafowl is a bird known for attracting attention. Whether flaunting their colorful, unfurled plumage or delivering a resounding cry, peafowl are undoubtedly expressive, insistent creatures.

Occasionally, when Healthy Children Project’s Carin Richter, RN, MSN, APN-BC, IBCLC, CCBE hosts Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) competencies from her Florida home, a curious peacock will poke its head into the frame of the video call demanding attention from her and the participants. 

“The big inquisitive bird insists on being part of the session on breastfeeding!” Richter exclaims.  

Since we featured her last, Richter has fully retired from her responsibilities at St. Anthony’s Medical Center in Rockford, Ill. and now helps facilitate the online LCTC once a week.

Our Milky Way caught up with Richter this winter as part of our Where are they now? series. 

Now 70 years old, Richter shares with a stirring of anger, worry and dismay in her tone: “Women’s health… We are in crisis mode. I’m personally struggling with any kind of optimism.”

She cites a few culprits: a political climate that tolerates division and disrespect, the marginalization of maternal child health issues, and the stripping of rights as marked by the reversal of Roe v. Wade. 

From these ruins, Richter has constructed several lessons. For one, she implores us to become politically involved. 

“Keep women’s issues right smack dab in the conversation,” she advises. “Look around. Search out areas where you can sit at that decision making table.” 

Political involvement, Richter suggests, can come in the form of participating on a shared governance board, community advisory boards, church councils, and rotary clubs. Engagement doesn’t need to look like shaking hands with the mayor. 

She continues, “My friends always say, ‘Oh Carin, you never have one conversation without the word breast coming through.’ We need to live that! Because if we don’t we’re going to lose what we have.”

Photo by Nicole Arango Lang on Unsplash

In other words, be a peafowl. Demand attention. 

Richter lays out what happens when we don’t. 

During her nursing career, Richter and her colleagues’ involvement with the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) eventually gave rise to seven hospitals in her area being designated by 2013. As of 2022, only one of those hospitals had retained their designation. 

“Because there was no one sitting at the decision making table speaking for the initiative,  administration lost sight of it and breastfeeding took a back seat or perhaps didn’t have a seat at all,” Richter reflects. “No one spoke of keeping breastfeeding issues in the forefront. It’s an experience that brings me to tears.”

Another insight she’s gained is the difficulty in beginning and sustaining a community-based lactation business. She watched friends with solid business plans, well-researched proposals, and passionate ambitions to help dyads get crushed by lack of insurance reimbursement, lack of mentorship and lack of collaboration.

“We need a lot of work on that front,” Richter comments. 

She suggests a reimagination of the way lactation services are viewed where insurances and companies recognize the importance of breastfeeding and elevate lactation support to a professional state. 

For instance, while working at the hospital, Richter brainstormed ways to give value to and justify the services of in-house lactation care providers. She found that postpartum breastfeeding support offered in-hospital  resulted in a marked increase in patient satisfaction scores. A creative solution suggested that  initial lactation and breast care be embedded in the room rate available for all patients, not billed as a separate line item, allowing for a higher reimbursement rate, Richter explains.  

Photo by Hannah Barata: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-having-skin-to-skin-contact-with-her-newborn-baby-19782322/

After retirement from the clinical setting, Richter cared for her aging parents. She says she felt the pinch many women of today experience as they juggle personal, familial and work responsibilities.

As she lived the struggle to find workable solutions for the care of her elder parents, she says she was surprised to find that barriers were similar to those she encountered while working for change in the community surrounding breastfeeding. For both, breastfeeding and elder care, resources are often limited, frequently expensive, and often inaccessible or unavailable.

Her focus now has broadened from maternal child health advocacy to the broader realm of family care issues. She finds herself
advocating for maternal child health and family care issues like pay equity and affordable child care.

“The struggle continues across the continuum, in arenas frequently dominated by women who bear the majority of responsibility,” Richter reflects. 

Despite a sometimes discouraging climate, Richter says she sees “little bright spots” here and there. 

“Not a week goes by that I don’t have a [medical professional] seeking lactation credentialing… I am thrilled with this,” she begins.  The practitioners seeking lactation credentials are not only specializing in women’s health; instead they’re an interdisciplinary group of folks, a sign that breastfeeding and lactation care is breaking free from siloed confines.  

“This is what keeps me excited,” Richter says. “More knowledgeable, eager voices speaking for mothers and babies.” 

Looking back, Richter remembers when it caused a fight to require lactation credentialing for OB nurses. 

“We got so much backlash not only from administration but from OB nurses themselves,”  Richter recounts. “Some OB nurses took no ownership of lactation. ‘That’s the lactation counselors’ job,’ they would claim.”

In this culture, Richter pointed out that trauma nurses are required to be trauma certified, oncology nurses  are required to be oncology certified; why were OB nurses not required to be certified in lactation when it’s such a large portion of their work?

“It was a bit of an eye opener,” Richter says. 

Retrieved from ALPP. Used with permission.

Now almost all hospital OB nurses need to be certified within the first one to two years of hire, and Richter says she’s encouraged by the ever-increasing number of OB nurses she speaks with weekly who are seeking breastfeeding certification and are supported by their department managers.

As for physicians certified in lactation, an already developed template existed. The state of Illinois had issued a Perinatal state wide initiative to mandate that all anesthesiologists caring  for pregnant patients were to be certified in Neonatal Resuscitation Program (NRP). All obstetricians soon followed. Richter says her wish would be that the template could extend to mandating lactation credentials to all professionals caring for pregnant and breastfeeding families.

Another bright spot Richter’s noticed are the larger, private sector industry and private employers in the Midwest offering adequate workplace lactation accommodations and services  that go beyond what is mandated by law. 

Moreover, Richter continues to be  impressed by the work that the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) is doing, namely increasing momentum for workplace protections across the nation.

Though she adds, “The spirit is really strong, but the body is really weak. Getting the body to make the decisions and the policies is difficult.” 

Retrieved from ALPP. Used with permission.

Yet another area of encouragement is the inroad made into the recognition of perinatal mood disorders (PMD). Acknowledging that there is always room for improvement, Richter extols the improvements in detection, treatment and the lightened stigma around PMDs.  

Richter shares on a final note that while maternal child health issues have been largely well promoted and mostly supported in the last decade, she hopes to see more emphasis and energy put into the protection leg of the triad. That will require involvement in the work of policy change at the institution, community, state and national level. Policy development and change is the first stepping stone, she advises. 

“Do not be afraid of policies, because policies have power,” Richter states.  “Get involved and find your place at the decision making table.That’s your homework assignment for the year!” 



Where are they now? An update from Nicole Bridges PhD, B Comm (Hons), SFHEA, MPRIA

Then

Amidst trolls who lurk, misinformation that muddies, and insidious marketing,  Nicole Bridges’s PhD, B Comm (Hons), SFHEA, MPRIA (she/her) work illuminates the helpful spaces on the internet. Almost a decade ago, her publication The faces of breastfeeding support: experiences of mothers seeking breastfeeding support online, found that “social networking sites (SNSs) provide support from the trusted community” that is “immediate…practical and valuable…”

In our 2017 coverage, Dr. Bridges pointed out how social media can compliment face-to-face interaction between breastfeeding dyads and lactation care providers, how it can offer moms “access to the collective wisdom of the whole tribe” as opposed to the perspective of one lactation professional, and how it can facilitate social interaction offline.

and now.

Dr. Bridges now serves as the Director of Academic Program for Communication, Creative Industries and Screen Media and is a Senior Lecturer in Public Relations in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. For over two decades, she has been a volunteer breastfeeding counselor with the Australian Breastfeeding Association.

We’re pleased to have caught up with Dr. Bridges as she reflects on the past and future.

Q: What is the most significant change you’ve noticed in maternal child health in the last decade?

A: The increased use and evolution of social media tools to support breastfeeding. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified this and demonstrated how useful social media and online communities can be to supporting families in times of need.

Q: What is the most helpful/profound lesson you have learned about maternal child health in the last decade?

A: That (unfortunately) there is still so much more work to be done and that volunteer peer support organisations like the Australian Breastfeeding Association are needed more than ever before.

Q: Is there a current project, organization, initiative, endeavor or trend in lactation and breastfeeding that excites you most?

A: It will be interesting to see how the introduction and evolution of AI tools can be used to support breastfeeding into the future.

Q: What’s your best piece of advice for the next generation of maternal child health advocates?

A: Always place the parents and children at the centre of everything you do.

Q: Where do you envision yourself in the next 10 years?

A: I do hope that I am still a volunteer peer counsellor 10 years from now and that I can still continue to support breastfeeding families in this role and as a researcher in this area.

Check out Dr. Bridges’ publications since her work was last featured on Our Milky Way:

  • Rowbotham, S., Marks, L., Tawia, S., Woolley, E., Rooney, J., Kiggins, E., Healey, D., Wardle, K., Campbell, V., Bridges, N. and Hawe, P. (2022), ‘Using citizen science to engage the public in monitoring workplace breastfeeding support in Australia’, Health Promotion Journal of Australia, vol 33, no 1 , pp 151 – 161.

  • Bridges, N., Howell, G. and Schmied, V. (2019), ‘Creating online communities to build positive relationships and increase engagement in not-for-profit organisations’, Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, vol 20 .

  • Bridges, N., Howell, G. and Schmied, V. (2018), ‘Breastfeeding peer support on social networking sites’, Breastfeeding Review, vol 26, no 2 , pp 17 – 27.

Where are they now? Checking in with Stephanie Hutchinson of the Appalachian Breastfeeding Network (ABN)

In May 2016, Stephanie Hutchinson (then Carroll), MBA, BS, IBCLC  and a few of her colleagues launched the Appalachian Breastfeeding Network (ABN), “dreaming that one day [Appalachian] parents would have the access to lactation care that they deserve.”

In just one year, the network grew to 11 states and 250 members. By the time the organization was five years-old, the network  grew “to over 600 members across all 13 states in Appalachia – and beyond!” Today, ABM “continues to grow in its membership, its capacity, and its visibility.” [Retrieved from: https://www.appalachianbreastfeedingnetwork.org/abn-board.html

 

Then

When Our Milky Way first featured Hutchinson in 2017, she said that the exponential growth was not expected, but also not surprising. 

“There was absolutely no organization that grouped Appalachia as a culture, together, to make an impact for change,” she said.

 

 

and now.

Almost a decade later, Hutchinson serves as the President of ABN and Administrator of their 24-Hour Breastfeeding Hotline. She also works in private practice as the owner of Rainbow Mountain Lactation, is an instructor and administrative assistant/media manager for Lactation Education Consultants

This year, ABN will host its first cohort of Appalachian LATCH (Lactation at the Center of Healthcare) Leaders which is their train-the trainer program. With grant funding provided by Gallia American Community Fund of the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio (FAO) and the I’m a Child of Appalachia Fund®, they will offer 20 scholarships for registration to the course. 

Many years ago, before the birth of her daughters, Hutchinson shared that she never anticipated doing the work she’s been engaged in, but as we often say, “All roads lead to breastfeeding.” Now, reflecting on the most significant change she’s noticed in maternal child health in the last decade, Hutchinson says, “As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I have noticed more inclusivity in education and support for all families. I am happy to see such wonderful changes to include everyone who is lactating.” 

And the most helpful lesson she has learned along the way is to say ‘no’. 

“This has probably been my hardest lesson learned, but there is only one of me and I know I cannot do all the things,” she reflects. “It’s okay to refer out to someone else, say no to a speaking gig, not go to every conference possible, and take care of myself. Once I learned this hard lesson, I noticed I am able to give more to my clients and my own family…I know that I am not the lactation consultant for every person and humbling yourself to collaborate with others will help your practice tremendously.”

Photo by Elijah Mears on Unsplash

Looking forward, Hutchinson says: “In 10 years, I hope Appalachian Breastfeeding Network has been able to grow enough to fit more into our budget and reach more parents, especially in those areas with little to no lactation support. It is my vision to duplicate our hotline and make it sustainable and available to anyone, anytime, for as long as possible. On a personal front, I hope to see my kids happy and thriving as adults and live out our empty nester lives.” 



The elegant and complex systems of flavor and nutritional programming

— This post is part of our “Where are they now?” series where we catch up with some of our very first Our Milky Way interviewees from over a decade ago! — 

“The societal and clinical impact of promoting sustainable food habits is significant, since what a child eats determines in part what the child becomes. (Mennella, et al, 2020, p. 291)

 

The pop of poppy seeds in aloo posto, cough-inducing spice in stir-fried lotus root with chili peppers, the meaty texture of a bowl of Cuban black beans. 

The dishes we crave tell stories. 

“Our food preferences have meaning,” Julie Mennella, PhD begins. “They’re more than just a source of calories. Food preferences provide families with identity.”

[Rough Translation’s Tasting at a Distance and Forgotten Foods of NYC’s Appetite for Home — Bitter-Sweet Memories of Learning to Cook & Eat in America both present beautiful audio embodying these connections.]

Elegant and complex learning systems 

The multidimensional interactions we have with food begin with our mothers. A fetus is passively exposed to the flavors of the biological mother’s diet through amniotic fluid, and the infant goes on to interact with these flavors through human milk. Mennella and her colleagues have called this “intimate bidirectional chemosensory communication.” (Mennella, et al, 2023)

In this complex communication, “diet and xenobiotic exposures of the lactating parent, due to lifestyle choices or necessitated by medical treatments, affect not only milk production and milk composition but also the infant’s biological responses, either beneficially or adversely,” the authors continue. “Developing alongside the chemosensory signaling is the seeding and maturation of the infant microbiome, which transfers and exchanges with that of the parent and of the milk, forming additional bidirectional linkages.” (Mennella, et al, 2023

Infant formulas, although available in many varieties, do not foster this elegant exchange and where developing food preferences are concerned, present a static flavor.

“That constant flavor doesn’t reflect the culture [a child] will grow up in,” Mennella comments.  

The same goes for infants fed jarred and pouched baby foods (what we’ve referred to as “the packet apocalypse” where the convenience of “ready-to-feed-super- glop” has largely replaced the art of dining and sharing meals.) The explosion of the baby food industry means parents often don’t feed their children what they themselves eat. Families can feed their babies canned peas, but never eat a pea themselves, Mennella points out. 

Mennella’s research has always been interested in flavor and nutritional programming in humans and the development of food preferences, but over the last decade, it has diversified to ask questions about the taste of pediatric medicines from a personalized medicine perspective, determinants of sweet and salt preferences during childhood, the development of psychophysical methods to study olfaction, taste and chemesthesis across the lifespan, biomarkers for dietary intake across the lifespan, and reproductive state effects on dietary intake and weight loss in women. [Retrieved from: Monell Center

Collective, family- focused approach

Mennella summarizes a few key points from her work. 

“Children live in different sensory worlds,” she says. ”They are really sensitive to the current food environment.” 

And like she and her colleagues have written, the food environment rich in added sugar and salt that caters to preferred human taste, provides challenges for all of us. 

“Fortunately, our biology is not necessarily our destiny. The plasticity of the chemical senses interacts with experience with foods to modify our preferences, producing an interface between our biology and our culture, our past and our present.” (Mennella, et al, 2020, p. 291

In order to influence our destiny, Mennella says that the strategy can never be for the child alone. She suggests there be more attention paid to the family as a whole in order for healthy behaviors to be sustainable. 

She nods to the success of peer counseling programs and recommends bolstering these opportunities for families to interact and learn from one another. She says she envisions primary care taking on a community approach to provide not only a forum for education but also opportunities for interaction between families.  

Where science and policy meet 

Mennella recognizes that ultra-processed, convenience foods are palatable and often inexpensive and deems this a “much bigger issue.” 

Her research has guided national and global health initiatives like the USDA and HHS Pregnancy and Birth to 24 Months (P/B-24) Project, the Breastmilk Ecology and the Genesis of Infant Nutrition (BEGIN) Project, and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. [WHO recently released its new guideline for complementary feeding of infants and young children 6-23 months of age. Read about it here.]  

As science evolves– where the picture gradually becomes more crisp and for every one question asked, fifty more arise– policies and practice must reflect and catch up to the robust body of evidence in order to best support child and family health.  

Read our 2012 coverage with Dr. Mennella here