Continuing the conversation about language use in perinatal health

What is ‘appropriate’ language? What one might consider distasteful, hurtful, impactful, another may consider harmless or meaningless.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán

Take this exchange offered by Ravae Sinclair, JD, CD (DONA), LCCE at the early 2020 International Breastfeeding Conference for example:

A white-presenting lactation professional working with a black mother and her baby shortly after birth exclaimed something along the lines of, “Awww, look at him, he looks just like a little thug!” commenting on the slight sag in his newborn hospital cap.

“Little thug”– a heavily loaded term generally carrying negative connotations– was understandably a trigger for the mother. She shut down no longer feeling safe in the space and asked to be discharged early. Most likely, the lactation professional did not intend to offend, but the impact of this short exchange has much further reaching consequences than the intention itself.

We have explored the impact of language to a relatively great extent here on Our Milky Way. You can check out these pieces for examples:

In a recent exchange, Nikki Lee added to this ongoing conversation about language in maternal child health. She shared an observation about how “the media rarely misses a chance to plant negative seeds in the public’s mind about breastfeeding”.

Citing an example from a PubMed alert that morning– Sudden Death in a Breastfeeding Woman with Arrhythmogenic Mitral Valve Prolapse— Lee commented “I ask you, how in the world does the infant feeding method have to do with the death of this mother? She had some kind of cardiac defect; pregnancy and labor place huge stresses on the cardiovascular system. What would you think and how would you feel if you saw a headline ‘Sudden death in a formula feeding woman with arrhythmogenic mitral valve prolapse’?”

Julie Smith’s, et al 2008 paper Voldemortand health professional knowledge of breastfeeding – do journal titles and abstracts accurately convey findings on differential health outcomes for formula fed infants?  “showed a surprising ‘Voldemort effect’ in the studies examined; formula feeding was rarely named as an exposure increasing health risk in publication titles or abstracts.” The authors conclude that “ If widespread, this skew in communication of research findings may reduce health professionals’ knowledge and support for breastfeeding.”

In her own reflection on the use of language in perinatal support, Donna Walls, RN, BSN, ANLC shares her guest post Our words need to send a supportive message- how can we do it? this week on Our Milky Way.

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As a child I often repeated “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. As an adult, I know this is not true. Words are powerful. In our breastfeeding advocacy world, words can be used to build a new mother’s confidence, or they can be used to undermine it. Below, I offer you some of my pet peeves,  words and phrases we commonly use without  thinking about their impact.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

First, maybe the most common and certainly one of the most harmful is talking about “milk coming in”. We know that the number one fear of new moms, especially first-time moms, is not having enough milk. In the first days after birth,  there aren’t often  visible signs of milk production. New parents have often heard about engorgement and how breasts get so full, they look like they are ready to explode. But, they see no signs of exploding breasts in the first one to two days after birth. They may be able to express drops which is encouraging but no big reassurance that there is plenty for their baby.

We often see at about two days of age the occurrence of “cluster feeding” when their quiet, precious newborn seems ravenous and so, so hungry. Many moms think, or unfortunately are told, that this is a sign of not having enough milk. This is not even slightly, vaguely true but rather a normal newborn feeding pattern. We dutifully tell this anxious mother not to worry; her “milk will come in” in a day or two. The not-so-subtle message is that there is no need to worry about not having milk now, that  it soon will come in.

What has happened is that we have reinforced her biggest worry about not being able to adequately feed her baby. I don’t believe for a minute that this is intentional on our part, really just one of those things we have always said and never really examined the consequences.

I sometimes feel sorry for underappreciated, often ignored colostrum. Maybe it’s time we change the language. So instead of saying “your milk will come in”, might I suggest we instead say “the milk you’ve been making for your baby while you were pregnant is there for the first feeds. It is newborn milk, sometimes called colostrum, and this small volume is all your baby needs in the first hours and days. When you nurse frequently in these first days the newborn milk will change over to mature milk and you will see an increase in the amount as your breasts will become fuller, firmer and heavier.” You can of course  come up with your own wording just as long as new parents get the message that there is milk NOW- not “coming in” later!

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

My second pet peeve is judgey diagnoses of flat nipples. Way too often when prenatal breast assessments are done, there is a diagnosis of flat nipples, usually based only on the appearance with no regard to assessing function. Once these misunderstood nipples are labeled, the mother is deemed not quite right for feeding. Silly exercises and gadgets are recommended to make already elastic skin behave appropriately. First point: nipples are erectile by nature, some stand up a lot, some a little. Sadly most new mothers have seen artificial nipples and think they should look like these, not ever recognizing that we have the real nipples so why aren’t bottle nipples more like ours?! When counseling mothers, ask the mom if she notices her nipple erecting in cold weather or with sexual/manual stimulation.

As a clinical lactation care provider for many years, I would often be saddened by the words used to make a mother feel her nipples weren’t quite right, not good enough. I have seen too often women struggling with breastfeeding because they were told even before the baby’s birth that the chances were slim for successful breastfeeding; bad nipples would certainly cause problems.

I am quite sure males are not discouraged about the abilities of their erectile tissue at the onset of sexual activity. This is not to say that there may not be challenges  with inverted nipples; they may cause challenges  when they are retracted enough to not ever be stimulated or stretched for hormonal release, but flat nipples will evert. They just want to do it their way. We need to remind moms that the nipple their baby will prefer is attached to their favorite person.

Third, let’s talk about the term engorgement. By definition, engorgement  is not normal. It is a state brought on by interruptions in the expected initiation of lactation [Source]. Unfortunately, the term is used by professionals and families to mean a fullness in the breasts. Signs of engorgement include hot, reddened, uncomfortably swollen breasts which can be hard for a newborn to correctly latch to the breast. This needs to be distinguished from normal signs of lactation when breasts become rounder, fuller, firmer and heavier. Too often a mother may complain about her breast “engorgement” and interventions are recommended to help reduce the discomfort and swelling when in reality she just needs to be reassured that what she is feeling is normal and actually a good sign that she is producing milk. So, my request is that when a mother talks about her concerns about engorgement, our response needs to be to ask something along the lines of “what exactly are you feeling?” as well as the usual questions of frequency of feedings, adequate output and signs of comfortable  latch.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Our words can have a profound effect on the success or failure of breastfeeding. A huge part of our job, our responsibility to our patients and their families is to build confidence in their ability to nourish and nurture their newborns. Be aware of the message that is being sent and choose words that will build confidence, be generous with realistic praise and couch our intervention suggestions with success in mind. Ask for parents’ input; we want them to know their thoughts are important to the process!

Reference Cadwell, K. and Turner-Maffei, C.  Pocket Guide for Lactation Management. 2022. Jones and Bartlett. Burlington, MA.

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