At #ILCA18, the Journal of Human Lactation (JHL) awarded the Patricia Martens Annual Award for Excellence in Breastfeeding Research to Dr. Mary Renfrew. This award is given, in memory of Patricia Martens, to a senior researcher with a history of excellence in breastfeeding research which has had an international impact on advancing our knowledge and practice about human lactation and breastfeeding. The award recipient is chosen by the JHL Editorial Review Board. We recently caught up with Dr. Renfrew to find out more about her research and how she came to be interested in supporting families through her research.
Would you share with us your research interests and what led you to focus your efforts in this area?
Ultimately, my research has focused on ways to enable women – all women, whoever they are, whatever their circumstances – to breastfeed, including approaches to mitigating inequalities in health.
Why did I focus on this work? I think it was a combination of factors – I came from a large family where my mother breastfed all of us, and then I trained as a midwife in the 1970s, when harmful interventions were embedded in routine practice, such as separation of mothers and babies after birth, timing feeds, test weighing babies, and routine supplementation. These routine practices didn’t make any sense to me, and it made me angry to see women who desperately wanted to be with their babies and to breastfeed, yet who were prevented from doing so. Conducting research studies to demonstrate the harm and to identify positive strategies seemed to be a helpful contribution I could make.
What do you think the key takeaways of your research are for individual IBCLCs® working directly with families?
The barriers to breastfeeding are societal. They are a result of misleading marketing and advertising, a lack of knowledge and skills among health professionals, a lack of public support and understanding, a lack of family and community support, a lack of support in the workplace, and an over-medicalized approach that focuses on specific interventions rather than on the kind, supportive, knowledgeable care and environment that women and babies need. Work with others to tackle these barriers, and support all women, whatever their decisions or circumstances – these societal barriers make it hard for women to breastfeed, and they may decide not to breastfeed for many reasons.
What do you think the policy implications are for this research?
We need to tackle the societal barriers to breastfeeding described above through policy change. This should include better employment protection for lactation consultant professionals, limiting marketing and advertising of formula and other commercial products for professionals and for the public, taking specific steps to provide resources and support for low-income communities where breastfeeding rates have been low for generations, and improving education on breastfeeding for all professional groups involved in the care of women and babies. Such change needs interdisciplinary and inter-professional collaboration.
Our congratulations on the award! What research should we watch for coming up from you?
I will be retiring from my university post this year, so I will not be leading new research in the future. I will continue to publish, mostly in the field of how to implement large-scale sustainable change. I am also currently leading on work to develop new standards of education for midwives in the UK and those standards, which will include standards for infant feeding, will be published next year.
Congratulations, Mary Renfrew!
Mary Renfrew is Professor of Mother and Infant Health at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Mary has been serving mothers and babies since she began her professional career as a midwife. She later transitioned to conducting health research, specializing in maternity care and infant feeding and nutrition. In the past 35 years, her work has helped shape midwifery and breastfeeding policy and practices internationally. Her many professional accomplishments include publishing over 200 peer-reviewed papers; co-authoring ‘Bestfeeding’; and establishing the multidisciplinary Mother and Infant Research Unit at the University of Dundee, then leading it for over 20 years.Mary’s expertise is sought-after internationally in academic and policy circles; in addition to advising The Lancet series on Midwifery, she has served UNICEF UK and WHO. Her contribution to health science was recognised in her election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2014.