When we think about healthcare workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, of course we imagine ICU nurses, infectious disease doctors, and all the hospital staff who support them. But lactation consultants working during COVID-19 are healthcare heroes, too, making sure new parents — often delivering their babies without as much support as they might under normal circumstances — get all the breastfeeding support they need.
Anyone who has had a baby knows one thing for sure: when they’re ready to be born, nothing can stop them (even a global pandemic). That means OBs, midwives, labor nurses, and lactation consultants have been healthcare hero-ing it up alongside those treating COVID patients, because babies don’t stop being born for anything. And once they arrive, they need to eat.
Lactation consultants can work in hospitals, visiting new mothers before they’re discharged, or in private practice. Lisa Hays, RN, IBCLC, is a hospital-based lactation consultant at Baptist South Medical Center in Florida. She says she never stopped working during the pandemic in an interview with Romper.
“We’re essential because breastfeeding is so important," Hays says. And for those who choose and want to breastfeed, it’s vital for moms to give their breast milk either through feeding or pumping and impart all the benefits that gives to the babies. “We have babies that are born early, and the nurses rely on us a lot to visit those babies and help moms develop a plan to pump if the baby won’t latch. I think moms have come to expect lactation consultants, and we want to keep normalcy in our hospital as much as possible, including providing them the same quality of care they would have received prior to the pandemic.”
In her interview with Romper, Sarah Lester, BS, IBCLC, a lactation consultant and owner of LATCH Breastfeeding and Postpartum Wellness Center in North Carolina, agrees that breastfeeding education is as essential as any other healthcare service, pandemic or not.
“Breastfeeding is a health imperative, especially with the newest research showing that human whey protein from breast milk inhibits the growth of coronavirus in cultured cells,” she says. “An IBCLC is the only health care professional who treats the dyad — the parent-baby pair — and we are uniquely trained to pick up on certain things that other providers may not see or notice in their well checks. We are filling the gaps and helping families not fall through the cracks now more than ever.”
Lester opened her own clinic just weeks before the virus struck. Having a controlled, sanitary space has helped her continue providing breastfeeding support to new moms safely.
“With opening my clinic, I was able to discontinue home visits. I don’t feel as safe doing home visits because it’s an environment I can’t control, unlike in my clinic where everything is wiped and sprayed with germicidal and viricidal wipes between families. Everyone has to wear masks, and I wear gloves when touching the babies,” she explains. “From an emotional standpoint, one major thing that’s changed is the aspect of touch. I can no longer cuddle babies, and I can’t hug moms or put my arm around them. That’s been hard because sometimes people just need a hug.”
Hays agrees, noting that the biggest difference in her daily duties (aside from donning masks and goggles) is working extra hard to make new moms feel supported. Many hospitals nationwide are currently limiting in-hospital visitors during birth to one support person to control the spread of the virus, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations.
“It’s so important that we make a connection with the moms. You’d think it’d be difficult with the masks on, and their family isn’t there, but the nurses are wonderful about taking pictures after the delivery. I’ve been asking, ‘Would you like me to take a picture of the three of you?’ We are definitely trying to make connections and make those families feel loved on and supported,” Hays says.
Even if all of a mom’s support system can’t attend the birth or visit them in the hospital, Hays has seen some silver linings emerge out of this new normal.
“Moms are doing more skin-to-skin with their babies and resting more when the baby rests. They’re feeding in response to baby’s hunger cues now rather than waiting because they have a visitor at that time. And since the moms, aunts, and grandmas aren’t there, we feel like the support person is stepping up more to help the mother. We’ll teach that person how to help with pillows, how to position the baby with Mom, and how to help Mom relax.”
And the parts of her work that have moved to virtual platforms or over the phone seem to have some benefits, too.
“We have a help line so moms can call us back with any questions they have,” Hays says. “Our support groups we had in person; we’re doing those via Zoom now. I’ve noticed more people are participating. Normally it may be too much for them to put the baby in the car and drive all the way here. Now, they can participate on their phone and log right in.”
Lester encourages women who want to breastfeed to prioritize their lactation education regardless of COVID-19. For some, the pandemic may even be the reason they can access that type of care when they couldn’t before.
“We spend so much time preparing for birth, something that, in the grand scheme of things, only lasts a short time. Breastfeeding can last for years. It’s sometimes not as easy as you think. For most of us, it’s a learned behavior. Seek support; there are many IBCLCs and other breastfeeding professionals out there who want to help you. Even if you don’t have anyone in your area, the coronavirus has brought many into telehealth, so that’s an even more widely available option now, too.”
Lisa Hays, RN, IBCLC, a lactation consultant at Baptist South Medical Center
Sarah Lester, BS, IBCLC, a lactation consultant and owner of LATCH Breastfeeding and Postpartum Wellness Center