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Aug. 7, 2023

Faculty voice: Cultivating a supportive breastfeeding culture

Gayle Shipp is an assistant professor in the Michigan State University Charles Stewart Mott Department of Public Health within the College of Human Medicine. Shipp is passionate about reducing breastfeeding disparities, especially within the African American community. August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month. 

Breastfeeding can be difficult. While women want to do the right thing (for themselves and their baby) and value the benefits received from breastfeeding, they are often left alone trying to navigate many obstacles related to and beyond simply breastfeeding.

Ideally, women would be supported throughout their pregnancy and postpartum – making their breastfeeding goals feasible. But this rarely occurs.

Some mothers struggle internally to meet all the demands associated with motherhood and other household-related concerns while trying to breastfeed. Determination slowly turns to desperation when breastfeeding isn’t working, making it an injustice to both women and babies.

Whether breastfeeding, struggling to or finding that a mom can’t, far too many women experience a lack of support in all the moving parts that come with motherhood and feeding their baby.

Let’s be real; it can be a lot to take on all at once!

Gayle Shipp in front of a
Gayle Shipp, assistant professor in the MSU Charles Stewart Mott Department of Public Health within the College of Human Medicine. Courtesy photo.

Breastfeeding can be an easy, inexpensive and beautiful option for some moms. Then, there are times when breastfeeding is not even discussed as an option. Many strides have been made in breastfeeding as an infant feeding option topic during pregnancy and postpartum.

Breastfeeding has extensive health benefits for the mother and infant, strongly rooted in cultural norms. While many women intend to breastfeed, they often experience obstacles like inadequate maternity/paternity leave, childcare, lack of diverse lactation professionals or inadequate hospital and workplace support. These factors can hinder a mom's ability to reach their breastfeeding goals. In addition, systemic cultural barriers to breastfeeding exist, often experienced more intensely in communities of color.

My training in human nutrition credentialed as a registered dietitian broadly builds a framework to advance maternal and infant health equity focused on nutrition-related outcomes. Most of my work has supported breastfeeding as the optimal form of infant nutrition. My research aims to investigate systemic and structural barriers impacting families to reach breastfeeding goals and foster future place-based interventions.

How can we help moms who are having a difficult time with breastfeeding?

When contextualizing breastfeeding, using the social-ecological model, there is intersectionality across all levels where attention and strategies are still needed to help create a continuum of support essential to breastfeeding success. Some of my research has included identifying and understanding perceived social support networks among African American women across the antepartum and postpartum periods to help improve breastfeeding outcomes.

It is important to uplift families’ voices as they hold sustainable solutions to address the systemic and structural barriers related to breastfeeding impacting our families in Michigan and beyond.

Within our work, we noted differences in how African American women perceive their social support systems throughout the antepartum and postpartum periods. These differences may impact how women perceive the support shown and/or who is providing the support. Although findings were limited in our sample size, incorporating assessments of a woman’s perceived social support system may offer valuable information for health care providers. Assessments at various time periods can help the provider frame, initiate, and continue conversations around how best to support women in their breastfeeding journey and beyond.

Findings emphasized women wanting support that is, “tangible, immediate, proactive, and non-judgmental.”

To begin mitigating systemic barriers related to breastfeeding, it takes all our support where we continue normalizing breastfeeding conversations beyond covering the benefits. We are past that! More normalized conversations around the “day-to-day” aspects of breastfeeding, the conceptualization of how breastfeeding fits into their life, and discussions around individualized support and how various people can help support those efforts are needed.

Together, we can work to inform specific policy recommendations focused on lactation social support, influence programmatic decisions, and foster future place-based breastfeeding interventions in our communities that promote population and health equity.


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