Madison Cano knew she wanted to breastfeed her son, Theo. But breastfeeding was painful for her. The skin on her breasts was chafed and blistered last July when she returned home from the hospital. And Theo sometimes screamed during feedings.
Cano, 30, realized she needed help to get the short- and long-term health benefits of breastfeeding for moms and babies. New studies also have shown that covid-vaccinated mothers pass protective antibodies on to their newborns. However, Cano lives in Montrose in western Colorado, 60 miles away from her lactation counselor, Ali Reynolds, in Grand Junction — and it was during the thick of the pandemic.
She messaged Reynolds on Facebook and took photos and recorded videos of herself breastfeeding so Reynolds could offer advice and encouragement from afar. It worked. She no longer had pain. Cano is still breastfeeding Theo, who just turned 1.
“I don’t think I would have understood what was happening and been able to work through it without that resource,” said Cano.
Support for breastfeeding was upended last year, when it no longer seemed safe to take a baby class at the hospital or invite a nurse into one’s home. Hospitals, lactation counselors and support groups turned to virtual platforms like Zoom or phone calls. That made lactation support accessible to struggling families during the pandemic, said Danielle Harmon, executive director of the United States Lactation Consultant Association.
Today, although lactation specialists have more options to safely meet in person with families after their covid-19 vaccinations, many are choosing to continue virtual classes, keeping alive the online communities they created and relying on the technology that worked for many families. Virtual options especially help those in remote areas or those with limited transportation access, breastfeeding experts say.
Right before the pandemic, for example, Sandrine Druon typically had one or two moms attend in-person meetings she held for La Leche League of Longmont at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church or at a Ziggi’s Coffee shop. But because they could no longer meet in person, last June she launched two monthly virtual meetings. Now, an online meeting will typically include nine or 10 moms. She started an online Spanish-speaking meeting in May and parents joined from their homes in several states and even from other countries. She hopes eventually to have a mix of online and in-person meetings.
The virtual switch hasn’t worked for everyone. Harmon said the logistics of video support remain difficult, along with privacy concerns on platforms that could be hacked. Other lactation experts noted Black and Hispanic mothers are sometimes still left behind. So lactation specialists are trying to learn from the pandemic on what worked — and what didn’t — to reach all kinds of new parents.
Before the pandemic, 84% of U.S. mothers breastfed at least initially, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while Colorado had a 93% rate.
The pandemic hasn’t seemed to change the picture, said Stacy Miller, Colorado’s breastfeeding coordinator for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, shorthanded as WIC. Citing state birth certificate data, Miller said preliminary breastfeeding rates among families discharged from Colorado hospitals remained similar in the first quarter of 2021 to rates from 2020 or 2019.
Throughout the pandemic, lactation specialists have tried to offer convenient options for parents. St. Joseph Hospital in Denver launched virtual breastfeeding support groups that still occur today, in addition to breastfeeding help during families’ hospital stays, said Katie Halverstadt, the hospital’s clinical nurse manager of lactation and family education.
Last year in North Carolina, experts adapted an in-person prenatal breastfeeding program to an interactive video platform in English and Spanish. A separate effort on New York’s Long Island successfully converted in-person breastfeeding support to phone and video calls in 2020.
To help support parents in Grand Junction, Colorado, Reynolds expanded her private practice, Valley Lactation, by offering virtual appointments while continuing to see some clients in their homes. That hybrid model continues today, although Reynolds said the demand for virtual or phone appointments has decreased lately as the country reopens.
Paying out-of-pocket for appointments is a hurdle her clients face, said Reynolds, but she encourages them to submit claims for telehealth or in-person visits to their health insurance companies for reimbursement. Early in the pandemic, telehealth rules were relaxed to encourage more telephone and virtual appointments — many of which have been covered by insurance.
But insurance coverage for lactation support will likely continue to be an issue independent of whether pandemic telehealth rules expire, USLCA’s Harmon said. While the Affordable Care Act mandates that insurance companies cover lactation support and supplies, such as breast pumps, Harmon said reimbursement is often spotty. Mirroring Medicaid, insurance providers often cover services only from licensed providers, she said, but just four states — Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon and Rhode Island — license lactation consultants.
Experts such as Jennifer Schindler-Ruwisch, an assistant professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, found the pandemic may have exacerbated breastfeeding barriers for those without access to online technology or translation services, among other things. She published one of the first studies in the U.S. to examine covid’s effect on lactation services by collecting experiences from lactation support providers in Connecticut, including many working in WIC programs. For income-eligible WIC families, all breastfeeding classes, peer groups and one-on-one consultations are free.
Birdie Johnson, a doula who provides breastfeeding and other postpartum support to Black families as part of Sacred Seeds Black Doula Collective of Colorado, said virtual support groups during the pandemic also did not meet her clients’ needs for connection and interaction. Social media built communities online, particularly by normalizing breastfeeding struggles among Black parents, she said, but obstacles remained.
“Covid brought our community together and at the same time destroyed it,” Johnson said.
Black parents in the U.S. already had lower rates of breastfeeding than Asian or white parents, according to 2017 CDC data, and both Black and Hispanic parents have had lower rates of exclusively breastfeeding their babies at 6 months, which is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. Socioeconomics and lack of workplace support have been found to contribute to the gap. Research also has found Black mothers are more likely than white moms to be introduced to infant formula at hospitals.
A scarcity of Black health care providers in lactation, women’s health and pediatrics is a continuing concern, Johnson said. In Colorado last year, the Colorado Breastfeeding Coalition, the Center for African American Health, Elephant Circle and Families Forward Resource Center held three training sessions for people of color to become lactation specialists, said Halverstadt, who chairs the coalition.
Jefferson County, which encompasses much of Denver’s western suburbs, is now training at least a dozen Spanish-speaking community members for lactation certification. In addition to classes, the trainees log clinical hours in breastfeeding support, sometimes during virtual meetings of a Spanish-speaking support group called Cuenta Conmigo Lactancia.
“You are more confident and more at ease with someone who knows your language, your culture and who is part of the community,” said Brenda Rodriguez, a dietitian and certified lactation consultant for Jefferson County Public Health, which reaches roughly 400 breastfeeding families each month through its WIC programs.
Angelica Pereda, a maternal and child health registered nurse, is part of that training program. Pereda, who is Hispanic and bilingual, gave birth to son Ahmias in April 2020 and struggled with breastfeeding because he could not latch on to her breasts. A lactation consultant could not come into her home during the pandemic, and she was skeptical of virtual consultations because of privacy concerns. So she pumped her breast milk and bottle-fed it to her son.
Her experience gave her newfound empathy for families, and she wants to help other Spanish-speaking parents find solutions — whether in person or virtually.
“There is just not enough breastfeeding support in general, but especially when that support is in a different language,” said Pereda.
This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.