Your Health

It's 3 a.m., you're nursing alone, but you're not alone

Courtesy of Camille Fisher
Bay Area breastfeeding aficionados – like Camille Fisher and her daughter, Lara Belle, above – invite local families to Berkeley 10 a.m. Saturday to celebrate black breastfeeding.

When I returned to work in downtown Los Altos as a new mother, I regularly asked myself what professional repercussions I’d experience from noncovert breastfeeding. Some of you probably saw me nursing the baby at the library, in front of Linden Tree Books and once – during an epic meeting that stretched into a designated “lunch break” – while interviewing what turned out to be a supremely supportive grandmother.

Committing fully to both a chosen career and nursing my daughter was a privilege, more than worth anxiety and awkward moments along the way. And I’ve learned how to ask for help to an unprecedented degree as a new mother. As I interview other new moms in Los Altos and Mountain View, I hear this over and over about feeding a baby and returning to work: It is so much harder than we expected. But with cheerleaders and role models, we’re figuring it out.

August is National Breastfeeding Month, giving a handy “why now?” to report on the call to build a “landscape of support” for nursing. Even in cities like Los Altos, our society’s mixed messages about breastfeeding can make an innately challenging situation harder. Parents facing some of the most turbulent and confusing months of their lives can find support that begins at El Camino and Stanford hospitals. But most of the questions and crises a nursing family faces arise after a baby heads home.

Local support, mediated online

Mountain View resident Teresa Wheeler’s husband supported her by doing the research and helping her out the door to a crucial La Leche League meeting during the first weeks of crying (mom) and tricky eating (baby). Watching other women nurse helped Wheeler in a way other education just couldn’t. If you haven’t tried it yourself, FYI: Babies bite, spit, scratch and howl as often as they contentedly slurp, and how to hold them against the breast is not as obvious as it seems.

For Jennifer Chow, an essential community of women coalesced online after her daughter, Sophie Rose, was born last year. A Mountain View resident, she first sought help from the lactation consultants at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s pediatrics department. As she dealt with milk supply and latch issues and early pumping, connecting with peers online became more and more important. At 3 a.m., a sleeping friend or medical provider who lives down the street might as well be a universe away. But someone, somewhere in the Bay Area, will be awake – probably holding a baby – and see your post that pleads for advice, or just encouragement.

Chow and I both connected to a now-legendary regional group, Bay Area Breastfeeding Support (BABS), which started as a Facebook offshoot of lactation consultant Serena Meyer’s business. It now comprises 5,300 local women – many from Los Altos and Mountain View – who are pregnant or breastfeeding and agree to play by Meyer’s rules: All statements or advice require credible evidence-based support, and every new and struggling mother deserves a gentle and nonjudgmental response to her questions.

Natural, but not obvious

“I think a lot of moms think breastfeeding is so natural – it should come naturally to me. But it was the least natural thing I could think of,” Chow said. “Even now I look back and my experience has been very different than I thought it would be. I was really idealistic.”

Lugging around a pump, parts and milk storage didn’t match the picture she had of heading out shopping and breastfeeding on-demand, on the go. By the time she went back to work, she was a pumping pro, but returning to work when the baby was 3 months old felt too soon – friends Chow left behind in Canada got a year of leave to share with their partners, as well as job security when they took it.

“I felt unready, but I just bit the bullet and did it anyway,” she said of the American alternative.

Women who rely entirely on pumping breast milk to feed their babies, as Chow has, face special kinds of inconvenience, exhaustion and logistical tangles. She found tips and solidarity on BABS and a group for exclusive pumpers.

It also helped that Chow loved her job and had an excellent team, an understanding boss and even a dedicated space to pump.

“I have a little space just for me – it’s a converted storage room, but it locks and has a little fridge,” she said of her Santa Clara startup.

“I don’t think I would have made it past 3 months if I didn’t have the support. “There’s so much to learn, and just knowing that you’re not alone in it helps too.”

Knowing to ask for help

“The baby is born, but the mother is born, too – they’re born together,” Meyer, the lactation consultant, said of a woman’s transmutation postpartum.

Why would a brand-new mother know anything about how feeding works? Meyer and the other leaders who donate time to answer questions on BABS, now in its eighth year, acknowledge that their round-the-clock supportive community is a “crazy time-sucker.” But it also provides a public service by meeting that gaping need.

“When it comes down to it, we say breastfeed your baby – but do it with complete guesswork,” Meyer said.

There are resources before the baby reaches the breast – she recommended local breastfeeding classes offered by a certified lactation educator at locations such as Blossom Birth in Palo Alto. But classes can’t anticipate each nursing pair’s peculiarities.

Meyer – a registered nurse – sees clients dealing with everything from common-yet-miserable issues (painful feeding, milk supply concerns) to complex health problems. Just getting a mom and baby in the door to seek help can be a battle – despite the fact that preventive health care, including lactation support, is required by the Affordable Care Act, many health plans attempt to deny coverage. I benefited hugely from the free, drop-in breastfeeding support groups led by El Camino Hospital lactation consultants, but I also relied on insurance to get extra help when my premature infant was born.

Standing up for one’s legal rights, in health-care coverage or pumping in the workplace, too often requires a level of education and confidence that can be hard-won during the storm of postpartum trials parents face.

“When we refuse to address pumping early on, we’re not really supporting women,” Meyer said, noting crisply that of course this raised a more global question: Why does the U.S. provide so much less leave for women than peer nations around the world?

Join in, show support

If you’re inspired to experience some of this community-building in person, head to the Black Breastfeeding Week Meetup scheduled 10 a.m. Saturday at Totlands Park in Berkeley. Due to a host of inequities in infant and maternal care, black moms have the lowest rate of breastfeeding among their peers.

“Black moms, brown moms, white moms and everybody who cares about uplifting moms and babies in their breastfeeding journey” should join in, according to Abby Ejigu, founder of Abyssinia Birth Services and the event organizer with co-hosts the Melanin Mommy blog and BABS.

The gathering aims “to uplift the moms who are doing their best – and say, ‘We see you, we care about you and we think you’re doing an amazing job,’” Ejigu said.

Every newly minted family in our community needs to hear this – but there aren’t often such straightforward opportunities to say it, and do it. I’ll be there.

For more information on the event, visit here.

Eliza Ridgeway is a Town Crier staff writer.

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