Pediatrician and new mom Laurie Jones, MD, just couldn’t get her first-born daughter, Caroline, to latch. She’d been to three lactation consultants. Nothing worked.
“My mother had nursed me until I was a year old – my husband supported me.
But I was bleeding and engorged and exhausted. I cried so hard one day trying to nap, and thinking about failing at this, and failing my daughter. The whole bed was shaking from how hard I was crying.”
Medical students, residents and physician moms can face unique challenges when it comes to meeting their breastfeeding goals. Like any other mother who will return to work, there’s the question of how the pumping experience will go.
Depending on the medical specialty, working hours can be unpredictable.
Plus, family members, friends, even medical support staff may assume that a doctor must know what she’s doing when it comes to nursing a baby. After all, she’s trained so thoroughly on the subject of human anatomy and physiology.
But that’s simply not always the case.
Many physician moms don’t always feel comfortable asking for help in the hospital, or after the baby comes home. Some skip pre-natal breastfeeding classes. There’s the feeling that they should know how breastfeeding should work –especially those who practice within the primary care fields, taking care of mothers and babies.
“There was a moment of deep despair that I thought I might have to quit being a pediatrician if I couldn’t breastfeed,” says Jones. “I was failing as a doctor too – how could I face my patients later when I went back to work and had to tell them that I couldn’t do it. How could I ask them to do if I couldn’t do it?”
Ultimately, Jones found the help she needed. “That horrible day, my parents
recognized what a terrible struggle I was having. They got my husband to take me to one more lactation consultant, who figured out the problem and got us on the right path.”
She was able to breastfeed Caroline, now 3, and then her son George, 13 months. The experience changed the course of her practice- she became a board certified lactation consultant and a teacher of breastfeeding medicine.
Jones realized how critical support and encouragement from other moms could be during the breastfeeding experience. So she started Dr. MILK, or (M.others I.nterested in L.actation K.nowledge).
She began collecting stories and tips and local resources from friends to pass around to any of her fellow doctors or residents who needed the information. She stumbled upon the Arizona Breastfeeding Coalition. “They took me under their wing and said — you’ve got something here.”
When Jones saw an article defining physician moms as a high-risk breastfeeding group in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine, it was official. Everything clicked. She knew she needed to spread the word beyond St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, where the group started and she is in practice.
So, she created a web site, a private Facebook page just for physician moms, and a Twitter account for Dr. Milk. A La Leche League (LLL) member advised her to find a gathering spot in a lounge and hold face-to face meetings for physician moms.
“I was skeptical at first that anyone would take time away from a busy work day to come to a lunch meeting, says Jones, “but that LLL leader was right!!
Kylie Galfione, MD, is currently chief resident of obstetrics and gynecology at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center and the mother of Sophie, now 16
months old. “As an OB GYN, I have about the worst hours of any one possible,” she says.
Galfione struggled with latching at the start, like Jones, but she, too, was determined. Quitting was never an option. “I was going to breastfeed, it was just a matter of how I got there.”
Galfione found Laurie Jones and the Dr. Milk group while she was on maternity leave.
She remembers thinking, I am an OB, I should know how to do this, why can’t I figure it out? “I took a huge interest in this because I had so many struggles.”
The women in the group inspired Galfione, talking about how they’d managed to get back to their practice, continued with breastfeeding and fitted pumping in to
their daily work routines. “It was really inspiring to hear these physicians talk about how ‘my daughter is XX months old and has never has had drop of formula.’ I decided –I want that!”
“They made me want to get educated and informed. And as OBs, we need to be. If our patients have problems they don’t know who to turn to and they give up.”
Galfione says she’s become a pro at pumping at work, as have other nursing moms determined to make breastfeeding a priority. “We have a pump in our resident call room. At one point there were five of us pumping. I sit at my computer, charting, and pump under my scrub top. I work the whole time. You learn how.”
Emily Mallin, MD, practices internal medicine at Banner Good Samaritan and is the mother of Eliana, 4, and Sara, 16 months. She was able to nurse Eliana for a
good three months, but “she went on a nursing strike at 3 moths old. And I didn’t know what that was, I thought she was done. I kind of new in my head that 3 month-olds don’t wean, but I didn’t know who to ask.”
That’s not unusual, says Jones. Breastfeeding and lactation do not “belong” to any one particular medical field. “It’s a cross-specialty and that is both good and bad for mothers. Sometimes mothers are ping-ponged from OB to pediatrics with no one helping them. Or, they see an incredible IBCLC who does not have the scope of practice to diagnose and treat what they see.”
Mallin knew that with Sara, she wanted to breastfeed longer. When she had difficulty early on, a lactation consultant put her in touch with Laurie Jones. It was day 11 of Sara’s life. It happened to be Mallin’s birthday. But breastfeeding had become excruciating.
Mallin says Jones took one look at Sara’s lip as she nursed and noticed it was slightly tucked in. A quick swipe of her mouth with a pinkie finger solved it. It was a gift. “Immediately she fixed the problem – within 20 seconds. I had this huge relief.”
The Dr. Milk group that Jones began continues to offer support, says Mallin, and she’s grateful. “Things come up, things change as babies get older. She and the group have been helping me troubleshoot this entire time. There is nothing that five or six or twelve women in that room can’t get me through.”
Christina Bergin, MD, who practices internal medicine at Banner Good Samaritan as well, just celebrated her daughter Megan’s first birthday, and with that, a year of breastfeeding.
“We have had lot of challenges in our journey, says Bergin, who prepared for breastfeeding by doing reading and research and taking a pre-natal class. But
Megan was tongue-tied, which lead to a rocky start. They cleared that hurdle by finding a pediatrician to perform the clipping procedure.
But then at three months, another curve ball. Megan developed a milk allergy. That meant a big change in diet for Bergin. But they got through it.
“There is an assumption that I had, to a degree, that it will be easy, and intuitive, and you’ll know what to do once baby is there,” she says. “There is a little of that to a certain degree. But you really need help and support of women around you who have done it before. It’s given me the encouragement when things weren’t going well to keep going and keep trying”
Bergin says she thinks that there’s still much to be done in terms of “normalizing” breastfeeding so that people feel open and free to do in their daily life and in public. “I try to do it as unobtrusively as possible. But I won’t banish myself to the bathroom.”
As physician, Bergin says she’s aware of the effect her attitudes and actions might have within the community. “I’m very open about breastfeeding and pumping with the residents that I train. If it is time for me to go pump, or if I’m pumping and I get a page, I’ll call them back. They might hear the whirring of the pump. Hopefully it doesn’t bother them!”
When physician mothers experience personal success with breastfeeding, says Jones, no matter their specialty, there’s a ripple effect. “It impacts their support of breastfeeding in their careers with hundreds, if not thousands of interactions with breastfeeding mothers over the span of their career.”
Jones hopes to grow Dr. Milk groups at other area hospitals and eventually,
around the country. “I see how much the support and encouragement helps people past their barriers and road blocks. And how just talking about the struggle to work and maintain a family (and milk supply) is so helpful to the members. I get energized every time I go to a meeting.”