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.

Midwifery inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

During a home visit recently, a new mom described how calm and simple her birth was as she gazed dreamily at her sweet, new baby nursing. She shared that she’d opted to be induced, and I don’t know if my eyes narrowed, or my energy changed, or if I inadvertently showed some judgment or discomfort on my face, but she quickly defended her choice.

Just in general, I often share about why after my first birth in the hospital, I opted for subsequent home births attended by midwives, how I caught my son by myself, my natural-term breastfeeding experiences, because I am proud of those things. Sometimes, personal approaches, choices and experiences can be construed as indirect judgment upon those who have divergent experiences. That’s how I was interpreting or reading into this interaction. 

Around the time I’d gone to visit this dyad, I saw the graphic, as I’m sure many of you may have, of a sketched pitocin bag and text that reads: “Holidays are not a medical reason for induction.” Indeed not! In the case of this mother, she was well-informed and she felt in control of her decision about how she would birth her child. Where there is autonomy and informed choice, there should be no judgment or scrutiny.

Home birth scene by a 4-year-old

I’ve been exposed to several of the faces of the kaleidoscope of reproductive health: as an adolescent, as a birthing patient in a hospital, as a home birther, as someone going through IVF as a prospective gestational carrier, and in all of those experiences, where I felt heard, held, safe, where my autonomy was honored, was in the care of my home birth midwives. 

It’s why I was so pleased to learn that midwifery was recently inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Securing this recognition is not only well-deserved by the many, many generations of midwives who have supported and continue to support healthy families, but essential in order to safeguard those in the practice of protecting fundamental human rights. 

Please enjoy this beautiful video by UNESCO honoring midwives. 

More to explore 

US women of color increasingly seeking alternatives to hospital births – study

more OUR MILKY WAY COVERAGE ON MIDWIVES

Honoring midwives during Women’s History Month

Alabama birth worker facilitates holistic, sustainable care for families

Taking ‘if’ out of the equation

Skin-to-skin in the operating room after cesarean birth

High schoolers explore human placenta, learn about physiological birth

Happy Birth Day, a new project by Dr. Kajsa Brimdyr

An opportunity for normal birth

Renaissance Woman

Dr. Soo Downe: International Breastfeeding Conference presenter Sneak Peak

LCTC participant rewrites cultural norms with “Afrofuturist healing modalities”

Changing the culture of mother baby separation in one Northeastern hospital

“I got to touch him once and they took him right away from me,” Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center labor and delivery nurse Jennifer Wickett says, remembering the birth of her first child 19 years ago.

Wickett desired non-medicated births, but her three children ended up being born via cesarean sections for various reasons. Wickett’s personal birth experiences coincided with her early professional life, working at a hospital in Massachusetts as a labor and delivery nurse.

At the time, she explains, the process was this: the baby was born,  taken to the warmer, vitals and weight were recorded. The baby was wrapped in a blanket and held next to mom’s face for five to ten minutes and then taken to the newborn nursery.

Skin-to-skin in the OR, Healthy Children Project

“I hated that for my patients and I hated that for me,” Wickett says.

So Wickett singularly started changing that culture of mother baby separation.
Now, at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, Wickett attends about 95 percent of the c-sections, and she says she was able to “take control.”

“[Initially] I wasn’t tucking baby in skin-to-skin, but I was putting baby on top of mom with the support person helping hold the baby,” Wickett explains.
She deemed it the Wickett hold: baby placed chest down on mom with knees tucked under the left breast and baby’s head on the right breast.

Attending a Kangaroo Mother Care Conference in Cleveland galvanized her efforts: the evidence clearly supported skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth and beyond.  Fellow nurses, anesthesiologists and other team members were resistant, but Wickett and a few other fellow nurses who created the Kangaroo Care Committee kept at it, always leading with kindness and communication. Rather than approaching the process with an “I have to do this” agenda, Wickett involves and acknowledges all of the participants in the room.

For instance, to the mother, she asks permission while also explaining the importance of skin-to-skin contact.

“They’re in hook line and sinker when I explain that their body regulates their baby’s temperature,” Wickett explains. “They don’t want to give that baby up; they are not letting that baby go.”

To the anesthesiologist, she facilitates open communication. Wickett lets them know that she assumes responsibility for the baby. “Are you good?” she often checks in with the anesthesiologist, while minding their space to work safely and efficiently.

Wickett  makes certain to involve the partner in their baby’s care, asking them to keep a watchful eye over mom and baby.

Photo by Jonathan Borba

Just about half of the babies she sees begin breastfeeding in the OR, she reports. From the OR, babies are kept on their mothers’ chests as they’re transferred to the recovery room, continuing the opportunity to breastfeed. All in all, Wickett says that babies born by c-section at her hospital spend more time skin-to-skin than those who are born vaginally.

After a vaginal birth, eager nurses often disturb skin-to-skin contact to complete their screenings and documentation. Excited partners wanting to hold their baby tend to do the same.

In the OR though, Wickett says there are at least 30 minutes without these disruptions.  Once mother and baby are transferred to the PACU, mothers report decreased pain when skin-to-skin is practiced.

What’s more, Wickett reports hearing often “This baby is such a good breastfeeder!” because the babies have an opportunity to initiate breastfeeding within the first two hours of life.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that immediate, continuous, uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact should be the standard of care for all mothers and all babies (from 1000 grams with experienced staff if assistance is needed), after all modes of birth. The recent Skin-to-skin contact after birth: Developing a research and practice guideline synthesizes the evidence. [Read more here.]

Skin-to-skin, Healthy Children Project

Wickett and seven other colleagues had the opportunity to complete the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) last year.
While she says she would have loved to have been able to take the course in-person, Wickett still found the material and resources “fabulous.”

For the past four years, there’s been a vacancy in the perinatal coordinator position at her hospital, so Wickett hopes that her new credentials will allow her to fill the need.  In the meantime, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center offers outpatient lactation visits. The center’s breastfeeding support groups halted during the height of COVID and have yet to resume; Wickett reports that they are trying to bring those back virtually.

Additionally, Maine residents have access to the CradleME Program which
offers home-based services to anyone pregnant up to one year postpartum.
In partnership with the Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast , Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center became the first milk depot in the Bangor area.

You can read more Our Milky Way coverage on skin-to-skin after cesarean birth in  Skin-to-skin in the operating room after cesarean birth , The Association Between Common Labor Drugs and Suckling When Skin-to-Skin During the First Hour After Birth , and Skin to skin in the OR.

Also check out Skin to Skin in the First Hour After Birth; Practical Advice for Staff after Vaginal and Cesarean Birth Skin to Skin.

Find some beautiful KMC imagery here.