I get to wear this really pink t-shirt and call myself a Breast Buddy, but who cares? I get to help women reach their breastfeeding goals and see cute babies.
So breastfeeding peer support isn't really new to me. When I started work as the Program Manager for a WIC Program in Maryland, US one of the first things I did was work out a way to start a breastfeeding peer counselor program for our low income Moms. Peer support has been found to be the most influential form of breastfeeding support and if I find the reference from the study they carried out at Hopkins on the Maryland WIC program I'll post the link J Hum Lact 2009 Nov 25(4) 435-43 if you are close to a library or have access to the journal online. The study looked at local WIC programs in Maryland with breastfeeding support and categorized them as having a peer support program, no program and only lactation consultant services. The programs with peer support services had the best breastfeeding results. The program I was in charge of was not included in the study because we had both peer support services and a lactation consultant whose soul purpose was supporting breastfeeding full time. I am biased, we would have rocked that study, but sadly we were too good to be included (my opinion only).
We were really lucky to have funding to pay for our peer counselors in WIC, and in the year I left (2010) the federal government promised additional funding that could only be used for peer support programs to make sure that every program had them, so cool. One of my last actions as program manager was to interview and then hire two new peer counselors to help spread the workload and spend the money. We had a great program. I hired a lactation consultant who worked full time with the peer counselors and program participants to provide services that they would otherwise not be able to afford. We ran breastfeeding classes, support groups, breastfeeding focused baby showers and events as well as providing nursing bras and pumps free of charge.
Where was I in all of this you may ask. Apart from doing all the hiring and budgeting, I also trained alongside our first recruits and provided support and counseling services when others were out of the office. My plan was to eventually train as an IBCLC (Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant), but work and my first baby delayed me somewhat. Second baby didn't help, but our circumstances have changed somewhat.
My family and I moved back to the UK in 2010 to be closer to family, my husbands work, and to have our second baby. I didn't feel that I'd make the best hire at over 5 months pregnant but I still wanted to stay involved in the breastfeeding "World", so I went along to the local breastfeeding support group. Yes, most of the women there had new babies but I knew that it was really important to know where to go for help if I had any problems breastfeeding my second baby. Support groups had been a life saver in the early months with William, and it's so much easier to get to one if you know where they are and how to get there, everything is so much harder with a new baby, especially a first one. Plus, I was still breastfeeding William so we practised being gawped at (he was almost 3 at the time and carried on nursing until he was almost 4).
I discovered at group that peer counselors (peer supporters in the UK) helped to run the local groups and that they would be training new volunteers in the near future. I immediately signed up. The position is a voluntary one requiring 16 hours of training if my brain remembers correctly. The training took place over 8 weeks at a children's centre and the teachers were NHS paid, a lactation consultant and a breastfeeding counselor. By this time Ellie had arrived, and she came to learn all about how to support breastfeeding too. Having already taken the USDA training in the US, it was more of a refresher for me, but it was great to learn the English terms for all things breastfeeding.
Football Hold - Rugby Hold
Weaning - ceasing breastfeeding in the US, introducing solids in the UK
There are lots of differences between the two peer support programs that I have been a part of which just shows that these programs really adapt to each inidividual circumstance. The peer support program in the US targetted low income women of different races and cultures and the peer supporters that were recruited reflected this. It was felt that women responded more positively when supported by a true peer, someone going through the same things in their lives who could speak to them in their own "language" (I use "" because I think there are many languages within each language, and although we may all be speaking English, we may not necesarily understand each other, a teenager may respond differently to another teen or a 30 year old or a 60 year old).
My fellow peer supporters in England are more homogenious. My town is not very colourful (but I say that after living in Baltimore for 8 years), and many of the women I meet would not be income eligible for WIC for example, but the Town is ever changing, and mine is not the only accent in the room. I do feel though that because the peer supporters are volunteers, it may be difficult to recruit and train women with lower incomes or younger women who don't drive. Statistics do tell us that older more affluent women are more likely to choose to breastfeed, but I do come from a piblic health background and I'm constantly looking at things from the point of view of "How can a lower income family access this service?"
I digress. Why do I love being a Peer Supporter?
- There is cake.
- I get to hold really adorable babies.
- I am welcomed into every single hospital room with open arms and a huge smile.
- I can spend as long as needed with Mums in the hospital room and answer all of their questions so that the midwives can get on with their other many duties.
- I could make a difference in people's lives for something that is so important for many new Mums.
- I talk about breastfeeding non-stop for hours without boring people.
- I work with some amazing breastfeeding professionals and learn so many new things every day.
- I share the good times and the bad times with new Mums and their babies and be there for them when they need it.
- I get to share that aha moment when it all fits into place and then they do it again on their own and get the cofidence to carry on without me.
- I receive thanks from women who I haven't even helped, I just watched as they tried again and succeeded.
- I share precious first experiences with new parents.
- I have the knowledge and the experience to answer those questions that new Mums feel silly about asking, it happened to me too.
- I help Mums to learn how to hand express and see that YES they do have milk.
- I get a vote on the baby's name if it hasn't been decided yet.
I encourage you to volunteer in your local community, you can make a real difference and you might even enjoy it!