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Helping Families in Alaska Access Virtual Breastfeeding Support

By Jessica Harper, IBCLC

Photo by jeff.snodgrass via Flickr

Photo by jeff.snodgrass via Flickr

In this day and age, Google can be a new mother’s best friend. It can also be their worst enemy.

I’m an IBCLC in Fairbanks Alaska and I run a successful virtual breastfeeding support group (through Facebook) for our local WIC clinic. The group started about a year ago and now has over 300 mothers. It’s a great alternative to Google as it’s filled with real live mothers at various stages in lactation, all of whom have encountered their own challenges.

Mothers participate in our closed group multiple times per day and throughout what can be the lonely midnight and morning hours.  Here in the interior of Alaska, winter time temperatures can often dip to -50 below zero. Who wants to take their newborn out in that? The group provides a way for mothers to get critical breastfeeding support from their own homes. This is especially important for those who may have transportation issues. Some mothers hide behind our online Facebook group, never attending an in person breastfeeding support meeting. However for others, the group helps them feel connected and actually encourages them to venture out and meet these moms that they interact with daily. This provides for in-person peer support and often helps encourage relationships.

Subjects range widely. Is my baby getting enough to eat? My baby is biting me, what can I do? Can I use birth control? I need help with breastfeeding, who can I call? Mothers supporting mothers is what keeps the group going. They are able to link one another to online articles, to share information and even videos.

Our WIC clinic has 4 breastfeeding peer counselors that help monitor the group and ensure accurate evidence based information is being provided. One of our peer counselors took a video of her nursing in public in a baby carrier and shared it in our group for all to see. Nursing in public can be intimidating for some, and being able to share that fear with others and explore options for conquering that fear can be helpful. It’s awesome to read when a mom posts about how she nursed in public for the first time that day and just wanted to share with us.

Fairbanks is a big military town. The moms here often have no family living nearby and when they have visitors, or they go home to visit, they can experience anxiety with breastfeeding and what their family is going to think. With smart phones on the rise, the group is available at the touch of a finger. The online group provides a constant source of stable support. A core of other mothers facing similar situations. When partners deploy or spend 12-14 hours a day in the field the mothers have each other.

This group has by far exceeded my expectations. Often, we get moms in the clinic who decline our breastfeeding services but later request to join our Facebook group. While some may not want the phone calls that our breastfeeding peer counselors provide or an in office consultation with me, they are still receiving support.

Since starting this online group our breastfeeding rates have increased! More moms are reaching out, feeling comfortable and getting the support they need. We have flyers posted all over our town promoting our group. While our group is mainly composed of WIC mothers, it is not limited. I feel having a wide range of mothers truly helps the support dynamic amidst the array of challenges a nursing mother can face. It has been rewarding running this group and I look forward to seeing it and others like it grow!

The kind of support that we provide online isn’t unique to Alaska. Just a few weeks ago, Lara Audelo released a book called The Virtual Breastfeeding Culture: Seeking Mother-to-Mother Support in the Digital AgeIn it, she shares stories from more than 30 mothers who have found what they needed to be successful at breastfeeding online. As more and more mothers are seeking information and support on the internet, I encourage more of you to explore whether an online support group is what the women in your community seek.

936744_10151597490791745_1490584438_nJessica Harper currently works for WIC as an IBCLC. She is a LLL Leader & mother to 3 in Fairbanks, Alaska. After experiencing her own breastfeeding challenges, she became a strong advocate in her community. When she’s not supporting breastfeeding mothers, she enjoys gardening, sewing and running.

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