Katie Bowman decided to pursue a career in women's health in part because of the societal pressures surrounding breast-feeding. Women, especially in the Bay Area, where using a bottle can draw scorn, are often too afraid to ask for help if they're having trouble getting their newborns to breast-feed. "I've heard moms say in tears in my office, 'I can't bring a bottle to the park,'" Bowman said. "Second- and third-time moms call me when they're pregnant, saying, 'I'm so scared about breast-feeding because the last time was a disaster.'"
So a little more than a year ago, Bowman, a certified lactation consultant, co-founded the Oakland-based MilkSupport with her partner, Sabrina Esterling. The innovative business has offered legions of new mothers breast-feeding assistance through online chats, classes, and Skype consultations. "We are taking a modern approach to breast-feeding," Bowman explained.
The idea is to provide women with a safe place to learn how to breast-feed without fear of being ashamed. Bowman also believes that teaching breast-feeding in a more modern way has become a necessity with the advent of technology and communication, and because of the way people live nowadays. "We're not raised in communities of women, of aunts and grandmas passing down this information — especially in the Bay Area," she explained. "You've got a lot of transients ... people living away from their families who don't have a mom or grandma to show them how to breast-feed."
According to a 2008 report by the California Department of Public Health, nearly 74 percent of mothers in the Bay Area leave the hospital having exclusively breastfed their newborn, whereas the California average is just 43 percent. But in the health-conscious Bay Area, continuing breast-feeding during the first stages of infancy is where the frustration and, sometimes, intimidation begin for some mothers.
Bowman noted that women often don't realize how difficult breast-feeding can be once they've left the hospital. And it's not as if women aren't committed to doing it. "There is more passion and interest in breast-feeding now than ever before," she said. "One thing that I notice is that in this era of easily accessible information, more parents are taking the time to do the research."
But she noted that, generally, pregnant mothers are very concerned with the labor and they tend to focus more on preparing for the birth. They attend childbirth prep classes, but don't pay much attention to learning how to breast-feed. "One of our main goals is to advocate for prenatal support," Bowman said. "We are trying to get women to understand what it takes [to breast-feed]. It can be a lot harder than anyone anticipates."
Stacy Fong of San Ramon, for example, had a late preterm baby, but said nobody had warned her about possible nursing problems. She said she wished people had been more open about breast-feeding. "When I was pregnant, everyone talked to me about the aches and pains of pregnancy, labor and delivery, and sleep deprivation," she said. "But no one talked about how much of a learning process nursing could be."
MilkSupport also helps women with special issues. Michele Franzoia, an Oakland mother of three, said the program kept her "sanity intact" after having twins. "Bottom line is that I would not have survived breast-feeding multiples if it weren't for MilkSupport," she said. "They not only helped me overcome every challenge, and there were plenty, but they also focused on keeping me healthy and happy overall."
Breast-feeding issues that arise with newborns and their mothers also can be vastly unpredictable. "My son's tongue had been tied at birth," explained Rebecca Reynolds, an Alameda mother of two. "The frenulum had been cut within the first day, but he was holding his tongue back and not getting a good latch. He dropped by more than 10 percent of his birth weight within a few days of his birth. Katie [Bowman] helped us get the breast-feeding on track. She showed me alternate nursing positions. She brought her scale to each visit that allowed us to monitor his/our progress from the comfort of home. Within a couple of days, my son had regained his weight and then some, and the breast-feeding was well established."
During graduate school at UC Davis, Bowman supported herself by working as a postpartum doula, helping families with the issues they face after newborns arrive. Doula work also solidified her passion, and after receiving her master's degree in maternal child nutrition, it provided the spark for MilkSupport. In addition to virtual assistance, MilkSupport also believes strongly in in-home visits, which it offers during the prenatal stage as well as in the form of postpartum doula education.
But the main emphasis is on helping make breast-feeding less intimidating for mothers and coping with societal pressures, while making sure babies get the nutrition they need. "What I want to be clear about is, we aim to help moms feed their babies as healthy as possible," Bowman said. "And if that includes formula, then it includes formula. The goal is to feed babies and be as healthy as we can."