By Lara Audelo, CLEC
I can’t recall ever seeing women breastfeed their babies when I was growing up. To be honest, there weren’t many babies around me at all when I was a child. I was the youngest in my family, and my sister is four and a half years older. I always knew that if I had children, I wanted to breastfeed, but I never really gave much thought to all it would entail before I was pregnant.
Once I learned I was pregnant with my older son in May 2006, I began to research everything from natural childbirth to breastfeeding. I rarely make a decision without doing research and weighing my options. For me, birth and breastfeeding were no different. Based on what I had read, I decided to write a birth plan, take childbirth classes, and hire a doula to assist me in giving birth. Looking back, I realize that my birth choices were almost completely motivated by my desire to successfully breastfeed.
When it was time for my son to make his arrival, everything went as planned: no epidural, short pushing stage, and only a first-degree tear. I really was lucky considering my hospital that had a 98% epidural rate. But we did have an unforeseen hiccough as soon as my son was born: he was taken to the NICU for two days because he had difficulty breathing immediately after birth, and was diagnosed with a pneumothorax. Thankfully, he recovered quickly and we both went home at the 48-hour mark. He was about 27 hours old when I first put him to my breast, and he took to it like a champ.
Shortly after my son was born, our little family of three re-located from the East Coast to the West Coast. I found myself in a new place with no friends, a husband who was gone on deployment, a four month-old baby, and still many, many questions as a new mother. When my son was about six months old, I turned to the Internet for breastfeeding support. Looking back, it was a watershed moment for me. I had no idea that so much of my time would include helping breastfeeding mothers through the Internet, and using technology to help mothers feel confident, the way my sister helped me as I sat in the NICU with my new baby. But that is exactly what happened. I turned to the La Leche League International mother-to-mother forums. Before I knew it, I was asking for–and offering–advice to other breastfeeding mothers. Then something unexpected happened: I was making friends in a way that I never had before—online.
My second son was born in the summer of 2009. My early breastfeeding experience with him was very different. His birth was wonderful as well. He was placed directly on my chest, and latched on and began breastfeeding within about ten minutes after birth. I quickly realized that breastfeeding counseling and education was a professional avenue I wanted to pursue. The fact that it all happened online was serendipitous. I had two young children and a husband who was deployed often. I went online and began connecting with other breastfeeding mothers, to offer support, encouragement, and advice.
The Advantages of Online Support
The Internet offers support in a unique way. You can take what you want and leave the rest. You can find mothers online at 2 a.m. when another late-night feeding that has left you feeling ragged. It’s a global community; your midnight is someone else’s 10 a.m. You might find like-minded women who share many of the same values, who live in a different town, state, or country−but your similarities are enough that you form friendships and keep coming back for more support.
Even if you don’t have access to local support groups at hospitals, or there are no breastfeeding mothers who meet regularly in your area, you don’t have to be alone. You can find your tribe online. The collective group of online mothers offering nursing support is very giving. Someone will hop in on a moment’s notice to help. Access is instant, and in our increasingly technologically driven world, this is appealing to many mothers. Sometimes the support becomes real and tangible: a card for Christmas, a birthday present, a sympathy gift for a lost relative, etc. Either way, the friendships are genuine and the support is invaluable. Online support helped me to continue breastfeeding, and on some days my friend from the forum saved my sanity!
Mothers have been using the Internet to help one another since the 1990s, but those born after 1982, which we refer to as the Millennial Generation, grew up alongside the Internet, and they use technology in almost every aspect of their lives. Time spent online increases after our babies are born by as much as 44% (McCann & McCulloch, 2012). A recent study, Feeding on the Web: Online Social Support in the Breastfeeding Context, by Jennifer Gray, examines how and why women are plugging into the virtual world for breastfeeding support.
More and more women are turning to the Web for health-related support, making it a fruitful option to study breastfeeding communication … An interesting arena to study breastfeeding support communication is the Internet as it offers a record of such support requested and received, and is a place more and more women are seeking breastfeeding support and information (Gray, 2013).
With every breastfeeding-related article published, blog post shared, question answered on a Facebook Timeline, or tweet sent through the “Twitterverse,” this information is stored and can be accessed at will when needed by mothers. The best part is that once you connect with mothers online, they will show you exactly where to go to get what you need. Then that mother will share it, and so on and so on. In less than two decades, women have built an amazing virtual infrastructure of support with the hope that no mother in need of help will fall through the cracks.
One aspect of virtual support is that mothers came to the Internet for answers, and they often stayed because of friends. Friendships began online with the first groups of women who communicated through email and LISTSERVs, and they became more real with the passage of time as technology now allows women to share not only stories, but pictures and videos of themselves and their families, thus enhancing the “real-life” aspect of virtual friendships. It should come as no surprise that women in the early days of motherhood spend more time online than ever before.
They may participate in hyperpersonal communication online, building relationships and finding support that they could not receive face to face, particularly those who are isolated in the early period after a birth, feeding an infant at home every two to three hours (Gray, 2013).
Ask any new mother who is at home with a week-old baby how different her life is now, and she probably wouldn’t even be able to articulate the incredible change. It is an awkward time. We need support and help more than ever, but we are often alone and afraid because we have no idea what we are doing. No mother should ever feel alone, or like she doesn’t have anyone to talk to who can help answer her questions. Technology has given us a way to end the isolation and increase support: anywhere, anytime.
Lara Audelo is the mother of two young boys, and a passionate breastfeeding educator and advocate. She believes increased education for all is the key to helping mothers achieve their individual breastfeeding goals, and is crucial for individuals who are responsible for providing much-needed support to nursing mothers. She received her Certified Lactation Education Counselor (CLEC) credential from University of California San Diego (UCSD) in 2010. This article is excerpted from her new book, The Virtual Breastfeeding Culture (2013, Praeclarus Press. Used with permission). Lara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.