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!” 



Hispanic Health Council’s Breastfeeding Heritage and Pride (BHP) Program heals, empowers and celebrates through peer counseling model

Photo by Luiza Braun

Over half of the Hispanic Health Council’s Breastfeeding Heritage and Pride (BHP) Program peer counselors were once served by the program as mothers enduring mastitis or going back to work early or other barriers to healthy infant feeding. Yet, some of these mothers still managed to breastfeed into toddlerhood.

“They took the knowledge to not only be able to succeed but [brought] it back into their community,”  BHP program manager and lactation consultant Cody Cuni, IBCLC, BS says. “This is a success story.”

BHP is a person-centered, peer support counseling program intended to increase breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity among low-income, minority women in the greater Hartford, Connecticut area. For over 20 years, the program has existed in some form. In 2000, an official review of the program was completed and solidified the peer-counseling model.

The program’s name was born out of community feedback, mainly from Puerto Rican families. Cuni explains that as community Puerto Ricans were heavily targeted by formula marketing,  the name ‘Breastfeeding Heritage and Pride’ grew from the idea of reclaiming breastfeeding as part of their heritage.

Photo credit: United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC)

Often, the lactation model of care is rooted in colonization, but Cuni says that their program  strives to respect and celebrate diversity.

“Our program seeks to empower…” she begins. “[Breastfeeding] is something that is yours, and something that has always been yours,” she says, speaking to the people they serve.

As program manager, Cuni trains the peer counselors through a 40-hour comprehensive lactation training. She approaches the training through a lens of diversity and cultural competence, helping peer counselors learn to have respectful conversations and teaching them how to be an advocate.

She explains, “Our peer counselors are working with mothers who do face a lot of bias in their health care and in lactation, so we have whole trainings on how to communicate with a provider, how to approach hospital staff who say things like ‘Don’t waste your time on that mother…’”

Peer counselors embark on visits with senior peer counselors and other lactation care providers as part of their mentorship model.

Photo by Felipe Balduino

The program also provides continuing education to stay relevant and weekly meetings to complete case reviews.

As part of their grant funding, BHP is required to track their breastfeeding rates, but Cuni says that what she finds more compelling than these numbers, is the documentation of the lactating person’s individual goals.

Empowering mothers to seek their own goals is our ultimate goal, Cuni says.

BHP is nestled in the Hispanic Health Council’s Parent and Family Learning department which offers other supports throughout the “cycle of learning throughout a family’s lifespan”.

Photo by Omar Lopez

“A holistic approach of care is vital especially for maternal child health care,” Cuni explains. “The first 1,000 days of life are critical to laying a healthy foundation.”

Practicing on a continuum of care gives Cuni and her colleagues the ability to gain a deep understanding of the families they serve, she says.

“Because we work so closely with the families, we establish trust and are able to refer in a way that they might not be open with [other providers].”

The clients that BHP serves are up against every breastfeeding challenge that every family faces in our country, but the issues are compounded and amplified by the stress of living in communities steeped in systemic racism and lack of resources, Cuni explains.

Their clients are managing intergenerational trauma and all of the symptoms associated with trauma, at a cellular level and beyond. For instance, BHP clients have a higher propensity of birthing babies with complex medical needs because of higher rates of preterm labor, gestational diabetes and other health concerns.

Cuni points out other challenges like those associated with being an undoumented immigrant. Gaining access to basic tools like breast pumps can be nearly impossible. Some of their clients return to work at two weeks postpartum after a cesarean section, not by choice of course, but for fear of losing their work as part-time employees.

And although Connecticut has workplace lactation laws in place, mothers will find that if they make noise about those protections, they might not see their name on the schedule any longer.

Photo source: United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC)

Yet, despite all of these obstacles, Cuni says, “There is a sense of resiliency. They’re overcoming so much and they’re not even sitting in that; they’re just living their lives and wanting to do the best for their baby. That resiliency is really inspiring.”

Cuni shares about a mother who lost her baby late in her pregnancy and decided to pump and donate her milk for six months.

“This mom, her experience, her unimaginable tragedy…she still wanted to do something with her milk, and it was really a privilege for our peer counselors to support her.”

Another client they served, after struggling to assert her workplace lactation rights, had a position created for her by their HR department as “breastfeeding liaison”. Now, she is an advocate for any breastfeeding or lactating mother at her workplace.

“Not only did she win for herself, she left it better,” Cuni comments.

Cuni came to this work as a stay-at-home mom with ten years of breastfeeding experience. She was a single mother, returning to the workforce after leaving an abusive marriage.

“My breastfeeding experience was valued as an asset,” Cuni remembers. “My lived experience counted.”

She goes on, “As women, and especially as mothers, we’re always caring for someone else. The pressures that we face make wellness difficult. Our society needs to do more to recognize the value that women have and the support they need to succeed. I want to …. amplify the voices, because if we listen, the answers that we need to solve the maternal mortality crisis, the answers are there if we listen to the women and families we are working with.”

For those interested in supporting the work of the Hispanic Health Council’s BHP, they are looking for donated breastfeeding supplies. You can get in touch at  codyc@hispanichealthcouncil.org.