From Africa to Appalachia, improved relationships and communication through nutrition research

 From Africa to Appalachia, Stephanie L. Martin’s, PhD, CLC research on nutrition during pregnancy, lactation, and childhood, has gone beyond nutrition alone.

In a world where infant feeding is commonly reduced to input and output, “perfect” latches and weighted feeds, Martin’s work illuminates the added benefit of improved relationships and communication. 

In Zambia for instance, Martin and her colleagues have looked at how to engage family members to support nutrition in women living with HIV and their children. 

Twenty years ago, when antiretroviral therapy (ART) was less accessible, the risk of transmitting HIV through breastfeeding was high. Today though, with an increase in availability and access to ART, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the use of antiretroviral drugs as a safe way to prevent postnatal transmission of HIV through breastfeeding. 

Still, Martin has found that mothers talk about their fears of transmitting HIV to their infants the same way they did two decades ago. Mothers often use unfounded strategies like breastfeeding for shorter durations, breastfeeding less often or offering other liquids in an effort to limit the risk of transmission. So, Martin and her team have counseled mothers not to cut feedings short. Martin shares that her most recent Lactation Counselor Training has offered new insight.

“I’m going to change things in our counseling materials based on what we learned in the CLC training [in regard to] how we phrase things about breastfeeding for longer periods of time; if there is efficient milk transfer, we don’t need to focus on this longer length of time,” she explains.   

Additionally, in an effort to reduce caregivers offering infants under six months food or drink other than breastmilk, alternative soothing recommendations were offered. Martin remembers one mother who tried the suggestions to calm her crying baby. The mother reported that propping her infant onto a specific shoulder alleviated the baby’s discontent. “I don’t know what it was about that shoulder, but she stopped crying,” Martin quotes the mother, noting the importance of empowering mothers and caregivers through counseling. 

In Tanzania, Martin and partners at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical University College sought to identify  facilitators and barriers to exclusive breastfeeding among women working in the informal sector. And in Kenya, Martin and colleagues have worked to improve adolescent nutrition in informal settlements.

Martin pictured with colleagues from Kilimanjaro Christian Medical University College and Better Health for the African Mother and Child organization

Throughout all of her work in East and Southern Africa, Martin says they are reliant on community health workers to roll out their programs. 

“It’s so important to understand their experiences,” Martin says of hearing out the helpers. 

Through her research , Martin has explored the experiences of peer educators, community health workers, WIC breastfeeding peer counselors, health care providers, and program implementers.

Surveying global health professionals provides an opportunity to learn from their experiences and fill gaps in the peer-reviewed literature to strengthen intervention design and implementation as concluded in Martin, et al’s Experiences Engaging Family Members in Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Nutrition: A Survey of Global Health Professionals

Through Facilitators and Barriers to Providing Breastfeeding and Lactation Support to Families in Appalachia: A Mixed-Methods Study With Lactation Professionals and Supporters, Martin draws parallels in the challenges lactation care providers in Africa and Appalachia face, including compensation and availability of services. 

Specifically in Appalachia, the authors heard lactation care providers expressing the desire for additional training for providing support around mental health, chest feeding, drug use, etc. 

Martin says that she found the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) covered many of these topics. 

“[The course] seemed very intentional in all of the right ways,” she says. 

The Appalachian Breastfeeding Network (ABN) also offers an Advanced Current Concepts in Lactation Course which covers these desired topics with scholarship opportunities. 

When asked if she’s optimistic about the future of maternal child health, Martin answers with a slightly tense laugh: “I feel like I have to say yes.” Martin goes on to explain the inspiring work of ABN and all of the lactation care providers she’s interacted with.

“If they were in charge of the world, it would be such a better place,” she begins. 

“When I think about them, I feel optimistic. I’d like to see different laws that are supportive of women’s health and families. We have all the right people to make positive changes.”