Pediatrician and new mom Laurie Jones, M.D., just couldn’t get her first-born daughter, Caroline, to latch. She’d been to three lactation consultants. Nothing worked.
“I knew how important it was to breastfeed her,” Jones says. “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 face unique challenges when it comes to meeting their breastfeeding goals. Like any other mother who will return to work, there is concern about how the pumping experience will go. Depending on the physician’s specialty, working hours can be unpredictable.
And then there are the expectations. Everyone thinks a doctor should know what she’s doing when it comes to nursing a baby. After all, she’s thoroughly trained on the subject of human anatomy and physiology.
Many physician moms don’t ask for help in the hospital, or after they leave. Some skip prenatal breastfeeding classes. There’s the feeling that they should know how breastfeeding works—especially among those involved in the primary care of mothers and babies.
“There was a moment of deep despair when 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 it 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 her son George, now 18 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 (Mothers Interested in Lactation Knowledge).
She began collecting stories, 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, a non-profit organization of lactation advocates who work to increase the incidence and duration of breastfeeding. “They took me under their wing and said, ‘You’ve got something here,’” Jones says.
When she 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 she practices.
“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, M.D., practices obstetrics and gynecology at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center and is the mother of Sophie, now 21 months old. “As an OB/GYN, I have about the worst hours possible,” she says.
Like Jones, Galfione struggled with latching at the start. She remembers thinking, “I am an OB. I should know how to do this. Why can’t I figure it out?”
But she, too, was determined. Quitting was never an option. “I was going to breastfeed,” she says. “It was just a matter of how I got there.”
Galfione found Jones and the Dr. MILK group while she was on maternity leave. “I took a huge interest because I had so many struggles,” she says.
The women in the group inspired Galfione, talking about how they’d managed to get back to their practice, continue with breastfeeding and fit pumping into their daily work routines. “It was really inspiring to hear these physicians talk about how ‘My daughter is “x” months old and has never 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, M.D., practices internal medicine at Banner Good Samaritan and is the mother of Eliana, 4, and Sara, 22 months. She was able to nurse Eliana for a good three months, but then her daughter “went on a nursing strike at 3 months old. I didn’t know what that was; I thought she was done. I kind of knew 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 [lactation consultant] who does not have the scope of practice to diagnose and treat what they see.”
Mallin knew that she wanted to breastfeed Sara longer. 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.
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,” Mallin says. “I had this huge relief.”
Christina Bergin, M.D., who practices internal medicine at Banner Good Samaritan, recently 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 prenatal class. “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. “But you really need the 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.”
As a 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!”
No matter their specialty, when physician mothers experience personal success with breastfeeding, there’s a ripple effect, says Jones. “It impacts their support of breastfeeding with hundreds, if not thousands of interactions with breastfeeding mothers over the span of their careers.”
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.”