By day SSgt. Kirsten Roberts, CLC works as an active duty Air Force shift manager in the Fitness, Lodging and Food Services field. She deems herself Clark Kent in this role.
“But then I get to put on my breastfeeding cape and help people,” she says. “I feel like Superman.”
Roberts has played an active role in drafting breastfeeding legislation for Guam called the Nana Yan Patgon Act or the Mother and Child Act. Introduced in July 2013, the legislation proposed protection of the basic rights of nursing mothers and infants.
The bill was drafted after a mother, Jennifer Camacho, ran into difficulty being able to pump at work. Camacho also had concerns about being protected under the law while nursing in public, so she and her husband crafted the legislation, asked for support of local lactation and health care professionals and introduced it to the government.
The Mother and Child Act passed unanimously in late October and Governor Eddie Baza Calvo proclaimed August Guam’s Breastfeeding Awareness Month which Roberts says is “a great start to promoting and protecting breastfeeding.”
In addition, Guam’s Department of Corrections now provides detained mothers with breast pumps. And a breastfeeding room at Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport is under construction, Roberts says.
“It’s surprising how this little thing has inspired so many people to come out of the woodwork to make it happen,” Roberts says.
Like many new moms, Roberts didn’t have the most pleasant initial experience breastfeeding her now still-breastfeeding-three-year-old daughter. Induced at 39 weeks, she was unable to hold her baby until nearly an hour after her daughter’s birth. Roberts says she resorted to formula for a period of time, but after doing some research and attending support groups, she was able to reclaim her supply… with excess to donate!
Roberts pumped for 13 months while she was working 12 hour active duty shifts. She pumped in less than ideal conditions like bathrooms and locker rooms on army green cots. Most often she pumped in a makeshift closet.
Roberts admits the conditions didn’t necessarily bother her but she did sense uncomfortability from others who witnessed her “in the act”.
Robert’s confidence to pump in public for her baby struck up conversations about breastfeeding amongst her colleagues and brought awareness to an infant feeding method that has become taboo.
Inspired by her own struggles with breastfeeding, Roberts looked for different pathways to become a lactation professional and help others. As an active duty military member, she found most of the programs overwhelming until she came across Union Institute & University’s (UI&U) distance learning degree in Maternal Child Health: Lactation Consulting. She enrolled in Spring 2012.
As part of her degree requirements, Roberts took Healthy Children’s The Lactation Counselor Training Course and become certified in March 2013. She says learning how to counsel and listen to mothers has been most beneficial.
“It’s important to get the story behind what’s going on instead of jumping to a solution,” she explains.
In addition to becoming a CLC, Roberts currently interns at Sagua Managu Birth Center as part of her enhanced learning project with UI&U.
Roberts reports that the birth center sometimes struggles with properly supporting breastfeeding. She once noticed a quarterly publication released by the center plagued with Enfamil artificial baby milk advertisements. [To learn more about predatory marketing visit WHO’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.]
On the bright side, staff at Sagua Managu generally encourage the magical hour after birth and rooming in, but Roberts agrees they could “do so much more” to support breastfeeding.
In May 2013, Roberts launched Guam Mamas Breastfeeding Support which co-facilitates free breastfeeding support groups with the birth center guided by Robert’s mentor, Barbara Mafnas, RN. The support groups run twice weekly and are open to families on the entire island.
In Guam Mamas’ infancy, Roberts says they only had one mother show up to the support group. Since then, they celebrate greater involvement thanks to moms spreading the word about a great resource in their community.
Moms typically come in with breastfeeding concerns after undergoing unfavorable birth practices that hinder breastfeeding initiation. Other times, moms battle hospital staff giving their infants formula without permission.
“Trying to combat all of this feels a lot like we’re swimming up river,” Roberts says. “Still, what we are doing is very valuable.”
Roberts was recently awarded the prestigious awards Non-Commissioned Officer of the Quarter (3rd quarter, July-Sep 2013) for the Group (36th Mission Support Group/MSG), Wing (36th Wing) and PACAF (Major Command/MAJCOM for the entire Pacific region of USAF bases for her career field) for her invaluable breastfeeding work within her community.