4 Pittsburgh advocates supporting breastfeeding mothers

Did you know the United States Breastfeeding Committee declared August to be National Breastfeeding Month? Breastmilk is the biologically normal food for human babies, and research shows that as breastfeeding rates decrease, babies show an increased risk of obesity, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Mothers who do not breastfeed can also be at increased risk for postpartum depression, several types of cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

Despite the strong desire to breastfeed (over 70% of mothers in Allegheny County initiate breastfeeding after delivery), the Centers for Disease Control found that only 23% of babies are still receiving any breastmilk by their first birthday. Nursing mothers need support to meet their breastfeeding goals because, as with any new skill, it can take practice. Thankfully, we have some wonderful people in Allegheny County offering support for nursing mothers. In this article, Kidsburgh recognizes four of these passionate breastfeeding advocates in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Debra Bogen, Photo by Rob Larson
Dr. Debra Bogen, Photo by Rob Larson

Dr. Debra Bogen, Pediatrician

Dr. Debra Bogen, an associate professor of pediatrics at Magee Women’s Hospital of UPMC and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, is a physician on a mission to help other health care providers support nursing mothers in Allegheny County.

Bogen recalls her medical training in the 1990s, when her medical school had zero coursework surrounding breastfeeding and her pediatric residency included a single lecture on the topic. Now, she is working tirelessly to reshape pediatric curricula in our region to include community-focused breastfeeding electives for residents and medical students. She’s teaching these young docs everything from breastfeeding-friendly anticipatory guidance to latch evaluation.

Bogen’s focus has also extended into the obstetrics world, where expectant moms are guided by obstetricians, family doctors and midwives. “We know women make their feeding decisions either before pregnancy or very early in pregnancy,” says Bogen. “We want these providers to be comfortable counseling women and answering their questions about breastfeeding early in pregnancy.”

Bogen and her research partner, Jill Demirci, recently studied Pittsburgh women’s initial prenatal appointments and the counseling they were offered surrounding breastfeeding. “We found that for many women, if the conversation happened at all, it was brief and included no endorsement of breastfeeding,” says Bogen, who wants to change that. Her research was recently published here.

The quality improvement initiatives she’s seen surrounding breastfeeding excite Bogen, particularly among neonatologists and NICU nurses in our region. “The data are really clear about the critical role of breastmilk for premature infants. Times are changing–now it’s exciting to see medical orders for moms to get a breast pump to their bedside when their premie is in the NICU and to be encouraged and supported to express milk for their baby.”

Ellen Rubin, Photo by Rob Larson

Ellen Rubin, La Leche League Leader

Thankfully, most Pittsburgh families won’t have to worry about a NICU stay, but there are plenty of other challenges that could derail a breastfeeding relationship. I struggled with the logistics of pumping and working when I had my first son, and one of the most valuable resources I found was the mother-to-mother support at a La Leche League International (LLLI) meeting. The group has such a strong presence in our area that mothers can find a nearby meeting almost every day.

Ellen Rubin has been a volunteer at La Leche League since 2005 and says she came to LLLI because she, too, struggled to nurse her first child. When she first attended meetings, she’d come with a long list of questions, but felt afraid to ask them. Once she felt more confident as a parent, she decided she wanted to become a LLLI Leader, with an eye out for mothers who might lack the courage to speak up for themselves.

LLLI meetings are free and open to women and their children. When a woman poses a nursing question or concern at a meeting, the leaders invite other mothers to share their experiences. “In inviting participants to share what worked for their own families, we allow mothers to see many options and choose what works for them,” Rubin explains. “You get to experience the great diversity in parenting. You just can’t put into words the value of seeing each other parent.”

Rubin mentions that LLLI welcomes parents to feed their babies anyway that works for them, and that moms come to meetings using bottles, supplementing or even using at-the-breast supplementers.

“More than anything, we’re there to listen, share ideas, share information, but not tell someone what to do. It’s great to just be there for someone and tell them, ‘you’re fabulous and this is going to work out, even if it’s not quite how you expected it.'”

Ngozi Tibbs, Photo by Rob Larson
Ngozi D. Tibbs, Photo by Rob Larson

Ngozi D. Tibbs, Lactation Consultant

Ngozi D. Tibbs, founder of Sankofa Lactation Services, is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) supporting newly postpartum mothers at Magee Women’s Hospital of UPMC. She also provides lactation consultation in a woman’s home as part of her private practice. But, she is most excited about her work with the Pittsburgh Black Breastfeeding Circle.

This group, open only to women of color, meets twice a month as a safe space for encouragement, evidence-based information and lactation support. The meetings draw anywhere from eight to 25 mothers, while the Facebook group reaches over 100 mothers. “When we say black lives matter, we include our babies. Black health matters,” says Tibbs, who has noticed that many women of color do not receive prenatal information about breastfeeding from their care providers.

The 2011 US Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding indicates that breastfeeding rates for black infants are about 50 percent lower than those for white infants, and Tibbs aims to change that however she can. The Black Breastfeeding Circle offers mothers the chance to share concerns and practices that have been disheartening to them. “Women of color need to be able to speak these concerns without fear of company in the room or changing language,” she says.

Women in the group have discussed everything from nutrition to nursing in public. “One of our mothers recently shared her success nursing her baby at a Pirates game.” A big deal, Tibbs explains, because “we don’t see black women breastfeeding. Well, we learn by what we see!”

Bob Monteverde, Photo by Rob Larson
Bob Monteverde, Photo by Rob Larson

Bob Monteverde, Lactation Consultant

One breastfeeding supporter who sees a lot of nursing women is Bob Monteverde, an IBCLC at Allegheny Health Network’s Western Pennsylvania Hospital. Monteverde, who is known for the humor he incorporates into his lactation consultations, has seen how much anxiety can affect a woman’s breastfeeding success.

“I see new mothers very anxious and fearful about three things: that their breasts are weapons of mass destruction that will suffocate their babies, that there is nothing in there to feed the baby with and that every time the baby cries it’s because he dislikes his mother,” he says. “If I can dispel that anxiety and get them to relax, breastfeeding can be easy to do.”

Monteverde specifically incorporates birth partners into his consultations because their support becomes critical once a woman is discharged from the hospital. “I explain to partners that they can see things from a different angle and I show them how to help position the baby, rub the mother’s shoulders and help with breast massage.” If partners can help to keep mothers calm, Monteverde finds that his patients are less likely to panic and introduce formula.

“I get a lot of offers to come home with families,” he says. “But my only secret is to breathe, relax, focus on posture and the rest flows from there.”

Additional Resources

If you’re planning to breastfeed or need support breastfeeding your baby, you’re in luck! Pittsburgh has many resources, from the Breastfeeding Center of Pittsburgh–offering in-depth lactation consults from an IBCLC and a pediatrician–to additional informal, mother-to-mother support meetings from Breastfeeding USA. Also, check with your nearest hospital to see if it hosts breastfeeding support meetings, as many of these are free of charge and facilitated by IBCLCs.

Featured photo: Nursing mother, Photo by Evgeny Atamanenko