Breastfeeding Medicine

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Towards Improved Support for Medical Trainees Who Are Breastfeeding

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Dr. Helen Johnson

Ironically, physicians have some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the United States. Despite acute awareness of the medical risks of not breastfeeding and deep commitment to educating their patients about the importance of breastfeeding, many physician mothers face significant challenges in their own breastfeeding efforts. Medical trainees – including medical students, resident physicians, and fellows – are among the most vulnerable. This month’s IABLE podcast focuses on how to improve support of medical trainees who are breastfeeding.

Dr. Anne Eglash recording the IABLE podcast.

Medical trainees have jam-packed schedules with little to no control over their time. It can be a small feat to find time to scarf down a snack between surgeries or surreptitiously slip away from hospital rounds to run to the bathroom. In a culture in which self-sacrifice for the greater good of one’s patients is the norm, devoting 20-30 minutes every few hours to express breastmilk can feel like an indulgence. In addition, trainees may fear being perceived as less dedicated than their peers to their education or to patient care should they attend to personal needs at work. Even in a workplace environment that strongly supports breastfeeding – such as the obstetrics/gynecology department – lack of accessible, sanitary, and private spaces can limit a trainee’s ability to breastfeed at work.

In the past several months, several steps have been taken to improve support for medical trainees who are breastfeeding. In June, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) published a statement (https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/breastfeeding-accommodations-trainees.html) stressing the need to better support these women through policies that address protected time, adequate facilities, and a supportive workplace environment. On July 1, new Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) regulations went into effect: residency and fellowship programs are now required to provide clean, private lactation facilities for trainees that are in close proximity to patient care and include refrigeration capabilities.

Dr. Rebecca Snyder cartoon from her days as a surgical resident.

The ACGME notes: “While space is important, the time required for lactation is also critical for the wellbeing of the resident and the resident’s family.” Last month, a departmental lactation policy implemented by the surgery departments at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin was published. This policy has been circulated on social media and adapted by dozens of other departments across the nation.

Most recently, my colleagues and I issued a “call to action”, urging the creation of a universal policy to better support resident physicians and fellows who are breastfeeding. We admire the grassroots efforts to create departmental policies and respect the significance of the new ACGME regulations. However, we feel that there is an urgent need to do more to ensure that all medical trainees have the support they need to breastfeed their children. In our publication, we underscore the importance of cultivating a supportive workplace culture, promoting access to appropriate lactation spaces, and ensuring adequate time for breastfeeding, and suggest specific action steps that program directors and institutional leadership can take to achieve these goals. Our piece was highlighted by Duke Forge and is discussed in detail in this month’s IABLE podcast.

Dr. Helen Johnson and her child visiting her at work as a surgical resident.

The podcast features not only the three authors of the “call to action” but also Laurie B. Jones, the founder of Doctor Mothers Interested in Lactation Knowledge. This online peer-to-peer breastfeeding support group for physician mothers has been instrumental in helping thousands of women – including trainees – meet their breastfeeding goals. Dr. MILK members encourage each other and share their wisdom for balancing breastfeeding and a medical career. Let’s take this to the next level by joining forces with breastfeeding medicine physicians and national organizations – together, let’s advocate for a universal lactation policy for medical trainees. ABM has already confirmed their support of the AAFP’s statement. Now it is time to amplify each other’s voices and effect meaningful change.

Dr. Katrina Mitchell and Dr. Laurie Jones in Sedona, AZ where they recorded the podcast for IABLE. The doctors’ three children have been breastfed for cumulative length of 14 years!

– Helen M. Johnson, MD is a general surgery resident at East Carolina University / Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, North Carolina. She is originally from Tampa, Florida and obtained her medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Dr. Johnson plans to pursue fellowship training in breast surgical oncology after graduation from residency. She has a special interest in the intersection of breast cancer and breastfeeding, and is working towards IBCLC certification. Dr. Johnson enjoys gardening, playing the cello, and spending time with her husband, two children, and beloved cat. Connect with Dr. Johnson on Twitter: @HelenMJohnsonMD

Blog posts reflect the opinions of individual authors, not ABM as a whole.

Written by helenmjohnson

September 6, 2019 at 11:31 am

Breastfeeding, advocacy and women’s rights

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In June 2015, I heard a fantastic talk by Keith Hansen, Vice President for Human Development at the World BankGroup, at the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine summit. Hansen spoke eloquently about the importance of breastfeeding for both global health and economic development; he said, “If breastfeeding did not already exist, someone who invented it today would deserve a dual Nobel Prize in medicine and economics.”

I’d brought my teenage son with me to Washington, and when we met up for lunch, I shared Hansen’s quote. He responded, “If breastfeeding were invented today, there would be an outrage, because of feminism.”

It took me a few seconds to fully process this response, as I began to consider the implications of a newly-discovered practice that would require one half of the population to engage in thousands of hours of unpaid work, at all hours of the day and night, for the greater good. There would, indeed, be an outrage. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by astuebe

May 9, 2018 at 8:38 pm

Might there be risks of risk-based language?

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Six years ago, I wrote a blog reflecting on Diane Wiessinger’s seminal essay, “Watch your language.” “There are no benefits of breastfeeding,” I wrote. “There are risks of formula feeding.”

That post remains the most-viewed piece I’ve ever written, with more than 74,000 views as of this writing. I’ve taken the lesson to heart. I’ve published a peer-reviewed study on the increased risk of hypertension among women with curtailed breastfeeding, and I’ve flipped odds ratios in teaching slides and review articles to frame associations as the “risk of not breastfeeding” or the “risk of formula,” rather than the “benefits of breastfeeding.”

Weissinger’s 1996 essay rests on the position that breastfeeding is the physiologic norm, against which all other feeding methods should be compared. Moreover, she notes, mothers who are facing difficulties will be more likely to seek help to avoid a risk than to achieve a benefit:

When we fail to describe the hazards of artificial feeding, we deprive mothers of crucial decision-making information. The mother having difficulty with breastfeeding may not seek help just to achieve a ‘special bonus;’ but she may clamor for help if she knows how much she and her baby stand to lose.

Thus, when we talk about risks of formula, we will motivate mothers to “clamor for help,” and thereby increase breastfeeding rates and improve the health of mothers and babies.

It’s a compelling logical argument. And yet, I’ve been unable to find empirical evidence that it is true. To generate that evidence, we’d need to compare outcomes among mothers and babies counseled that formula increase risk with outcomes among those told that breastfeeding improves health and wellbeing. To my knowledge – and please let me know if there is a peer-reviewed study out there! – such a study has not been done. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by astuebe

April 13, 2016 at 3:51 pm

@nickkristof When Whites Just Don’t Get It: Breastfeeding is not a “personal behavior”

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In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about privilege and parenthood. At the Breastfeeding and Feminism International Conference and the Kellogg #FirstFoods16 forum, I heard testimony from men and women of color who described structural barriers, indifference and outright hostility from health care providers and community members. These two meetings bracketed House Bill 2, in which the North Carolina state government legalized discrimination against trans, gay and lesbian individuals, and prohibited local municipalities from instituting a living wage.

These events and discussions drove home for me the multiple levels of sex, race, and class privilege that undermine the health and wellness of our nation’s families.

With these experiences fresh in my mind, this morning, I picked up the New York Times Sunday Review and saw Nicholas Kristof’s column, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Revisited.” Kristof reviews the burgeoning evidence of discrimination against people of color, from disparities in the quality of public schools serving children of color to experiments demonstrating that a job applicant named “Brendan” is 50% more likely to get a callback that an applicant with the identical resume named “Jamal.”

I was nodding in vigorous agreement, as Kristof affirmed the testimony I’d heard at Breastfeeding and Feminism and at the First Food Forum – until I hit this paragraph:

Reasons for inequality involve not just institutions but also personal behaviors. These don’t all directly involve discrimination. For instance, black babies are less likely to be breast-fed than white babies, are more likely to grow up with a single parent and may be spoken to or read to less by their parents.

In this aside about infant feeding, Kristof misses the crucial role of structural barriers that prevent women from breastfeeding – barriers that affect all families, but are especially severe for women of color. Contrary to popular belief, breastfeeding is not simply a “personal behavior” – it is constrained by the life circumstances and support (or lack thereof) that a woman receives from her family, her community, her employer, and her health care providers. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by astuebe

April 3, 2016 at 6:05 pm