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A Breastfeeding Tale of Four Cities Part 2: East

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Continuing our series on the landscape of breastfeeding in the US, we’re shifting our focus Eastward to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We’ll quickly assess the challenges that exist, then highlight a lactation support group that is working to close gaps and reach families in innovative ways.

While it’s true that no other area is consistently underperforming as significantly as the South when compared to the CDC’s Breastfeeding Score Card, there is room for improvement in every direction. At a glance, the US Eastern seaboard is packed with major metropolitan cities with large hospitals and no shortage of outpatient lactation support. Once you zoom in a bit inland or into more urban or rural areas, a different story begins to emerge. Many of the same challenges we encountered in the South exist in the East, including lack of access to support, lack of breastfeeding education among parents, and lack of breastfeeding supportive healthcare providers. Adding other factors such as demographics only compounds the issues.

For example, states in the Appalachian Region are woefully underperforming compared to their neighbors. Why? We know that socioeconomic levels directly impact quality of care. Breastfeeding disparities are, therefore, not surprisingly lower in areas that are economically depressed. We also know that race is a further compounding factor that drives breastfeeding disparities. Using almost any breastfeeding metric in the US, White mothers outperform their Latinx and Black counterparts. This is even truer in communities that are segregated, which often translates into differing levels and quality of care for those mothers in underserved groups. Black mothers lag the general US population, white mothers, and Latinx mothers, no matter how you slice the data. This creates a dire situation in cities with large Black populations where ill newborns could be greatly helped by the benefit of mother’s milk, and Black mothers could also be helped by the benefits of breastfeeding. For more on this, see our previous installments in this series.

Having relatable, culturally competent support is a major key to closing the disparity gaps in areas where breastfeeding is not the norm. What does success look like in a major eastern city? Is anyone reaching the families who are doubly hit with economics and race?

Yes. We had the opportunity to speak with Ngozi Walker-Tibbs, co-founder of the Pittsburgh Black Breastfeeding Circle (PBBC) which provides a safe space for encouragement, community and breastfeeding support. In our discussion, she illuminated the breastfeeding support needs in Pittsburgh, and detailed her journey to craft a suitable solution.

Can you tell us a bit about how PBBC was started?

The PBBC began in August 2014 during Black Breastfeeding Week. I had just finished graduate school in May of that year and this vision had been on my heart for many years but I wasn't sure where to start. I was overwhelmed with ideas and vision but lacked insight into how to make it work. As one of only 2 black LC's in the entire city; I was well aware of the lower rates of breastfeeding amongst women of color. I wanted to make a difference. A sister who is an activist in the community approached me and asked me to speak for the BBW 2014. I spoke from my heart as to why breastfeeding matters to us and how we can support each other as a community. After this event, the organizers and I discussed how to keep this momentum going. We had no money but wanted to feed the families. For the most part, we went into our pockets and found a spot, purchased food, and had our meetings. We are so grateful for some food donations that we received early on. We began to meet 1x per month at local libraries and women began to come. We discussed lots of topics including how to practice skin to skin after delivery, avoiding and resolving nipple pain, working and pumping, nursing toddlers and many more. We got our first grant in 2015.

How has PBBC grown or evolved since it first began?

We now meet two times per month and we are bursting at the seams! We have discussed meeting 3x per month and looking for a larger venue. Its a beautiful challenge to have.

How is the Pittsburgh community better off due to PBBC’s presence?

We have been featured twice this year in our local newspapers and the community is responding so positively. Physicians, Midwives, Nurses, LC's and other providers are recommending our circle to mothers in the community. They understand that we are an evidence based organization and mothers are learning about breastfeeding, parenting and bonding with their babies. Mothers in the circle have said they would have stopped nursing if it were not for the support of the PBBC. We know we are making a difference; one mother and baby at a time.

Can something like PBBC be duplicated elsewhere? How?

A black breastfeeding circle can be duplicated anywhere where there is an established need. First, the potential organizer should find what groups are already in operation in town, who do they reach, are there underserved communities? Find providers who are willing to partner with you to make a difference. Be prepared to share data and research. Find a spot, look for other likeminded organizations, talk with them, seek donations for food and space, develop and agenda based on the health needs of the community. 

Wherever there are breastfeeding disparities, local activists and parents are rising up to meet the need. Solutions come in various forms, from cafes to library meet ups to online support. We’ll highlight other such groups as this series continues in the coming months.

Meanwhile, PBBC is growing by leaps and bounds, and even supports their group mothers via Facebook in a closed support group that has blossomed to over 300 members. For more information about PBBC, Ngozi can be reached at 412-638-1580.

Nekisha Killings MPH IBCLC RLC.  This is part of a continuing series on diversity. Nikki is a lactation consultant in private practice in Lompoc, California and is LER's diversity consultant.

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Guest Tuesday, 25 July 2017