Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lactation Education

A few months ago, we watched a documentary on Netflix about the human body. I don't remember which one it was (probably a National Geographic one) and it went through the various body systems and explained how they each worked. The very last system discussed was the reproductive system and it follow the development of a fetus until birth. And then it ended.

Prior to becoming a breastfeeding mother, that probably would not have bothered me. But after learning about breastfeeding and learning how breastmilk bridges the gap between the time we are born to the time when we can independently fend for ourselves, it felt abrupt to end at birth. The pregnancy hormones don't just shut off rendering women in their pre-pregnant state right after giving birth. Hormones are still doing amazing things for  both us and our babies. The lack of a small section on lactation almost unsettled me. That's it? And the baby does what? The baby's brain does what? What hormonal changes are needed for milk production?

Last Thursday, I found myself in front of a classroom of about 20 high school students who were on the tail end of their reproduction unit in their honors physiology class. I was asked to use a 50 minute class period to discuss lactation. Because of the nature of their class, I thought they'd be interested in the development of the breast during puberty and pregnancy and the main hormones associated with breast development. I talked about how breastfeeding immediately after birth helps the woman's body make a smoother transition to postpartum-hood and prevents hemorrhage. Next, I discussed the major hormones needed for lactation and what happens during that time about day 3 postpartum when your hormones are flipping on their head, and what normal newborn nursing behavior is. At the end I talked about breastfeeding recommendations by the AAP and the WHO along with the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative and other ways to support breastfeeding moms and where to go for breastfeeding help.

I didn't hit every point I wanted to- it was a lot to cram into 50 minutes, even with a handy powerpoint presentation to remind me what to mention. I took questions, and the students were thoughtful in their questions and weren't giggly or immature like you might think teenagers would be after seeing diagrams and listening to the word "breast" multiple times in an hour.

I was glad that their teacher contacted me and I felt disappointed the other 1240 students in the school would get no lactation education. It's not in the curriculum. Anywhere. Their teacher, a PhD who decided to switch from teaching in a university to high school, and whose wife breastfed and pumped and worked, felt it was important for his students to get at least a little and so asked me. But otherwise, there would have been none. I know I never got any lactation curriculum in school, despite taking very high level AP science classes and the mandated health class. I didn't take "adult living" which was the class in which you had to take care of a mechanical "baby" so maybe it was mentioned in that class. Who knows?

I don't even remember seeing diagrams or explanations of the development of the breast. In textbooks on the human body, reproduction was often the very last chapter and it had diagrams of the uterus and ovaries, but the breast? I don't remember any.

It wouldn't even have to be in health class. In 3rd grade we learned the digestive system. Fourth grade was the circulatory, respiratory, and bone systems. In 5th grade we got to the endocrine system, nervous system, and reproductive system (for the puberty unit). I remember being given worksheets of pictures of neurons and having to label the dendrites, nucleus, axon, and axon tendrils. But never did I even see a cutout of the breast with alveoli, milk ducts, lobes, and nipple. A junior high or high school science class on anatomy or physiology could easily fit in lactation as a subject.

What would basic lactation education look like in schools? What if students were able to discuss the breast without giggling? What if students were introduced to images of breastfeeding as normal? What if they new terms like colostrum and montgomery glands? What if they heard about milk banking? What if a teacher happened to mention that there were breastfeeding support organizations like LLL or Breastfeeding USA or that there is a National Breastfeeding Helpline (1-800-994-9662)? Ten years later, when those students are deciding to have children, would they remember, "I remember my teacher mentioning some organization... let's see if I can google it?" I would hope so.

Does anyone know if there are any efforts to campaign for lactation education in schools? To get lactation education on the list of curriculum standards for high school health or biology? Anyone in education know how to rally for curriculum standard changes? If our government wants our breastfeeding rates to increase, I think this would be a great step towards meeting that goal. It wouldn't solve everything, but maybe we can produce a generation of people interested in breastfeeding and willing to make larger policy (eg. maternity/paternity support) changes.

ETA: Did you get any lactation education in your public, private, or homeschool? How much?


  1. Jessica6:35 PM

    I attended a public high school (Crockett, CA) and they briefly mentioned breastfeeding in the sex ed and biology class. Both of my teachers happened to have breastfed their children and told us they recommend it. They didn't elaborate much after that. I'm in college now and I recently took a health class and they mentioned breastfeeding (my professor breastfed her kids too!) briefly again. From my experiences, they mention it and recommend breastfeeding, but don't go into much detail after that.

    Oh yeah, my health professor also told us that she doesn't recommend breast implants through the nipple because it can cause breastfeeding problems.

  2. I don't recall anything about breastfeeding in my health classes. The only reason why I knew that I was going to do it was because my mother did and she talked about it as a natural and obvious thing so I knew it was the obvious choice for me. I think you are right about lactation education in high school as a way to acheive the breastfeeding goals set out by the UN, WHO and the Surgeon General.

    My suggestion to you for how to get it implement is to network. Do you know of anyone who knows the Surgeon General? (I would start with her because she was the one who put out the statement a couple of years ago). If you don't know anyone who can connect you, you can always talk to your legislators and see if they can get you in contact with someone. (I just did that and had a really good meeting). Its projects like this that networking is essential. Its all about people you know and how to get the attention of the people who can take the idea seriously. Its exhausting, but the way it is.

    1. The Surgeon General would be a good place to start, but I think it really will have to be a state by state effort as curriculum standards are determined by the states. That's a long battle. Of course, there are some states that are seen as leaders and other states will follow them if they add curriculum- and I think California is one of those since a lot of the standardized tests come out of California.

  3. I have never thought of this, but I think it is SUCH a stellar idea! This would be so beneficial to normalizing breastfeeding, reaching more future mothers than I ever imagined! Will you please put a photo in this post to make it more pin-able?

    1. Sure- I added a Creative Commons licensed work from flickr.

  4. I guess it was never a question for me. My mom breastfed, every other mother I knew breastfed. It was just a given. I don't see why they don't include it in education at schools.

  5. I never was educated on breastfeeding . I think it's important and wish I would've been . Now that I am ttc I try to get all the info I can. Especially when all store bought formula is loaded with soy & hormones

  6. This is why we need to advocate and normalize breastfeeding in public.

    While I personally believe that the relationship/intimacy/emotional part of reproduction should be taught in the home I think the biology part needs to be taught in school.

    I think the closest you get to lactation is mammals and the definition of feeding their young. So yes we a robbed of what it really means and its biological impact.

    P.S. If you need help pushing this I am all on that bandwagon.

  7. I don't remember any lactation education. Possibly it was mentioned in passing in the reproductive organs chapter of my medical anatomy and physiology class. I, too, took all the upper level science classes.

    I can tell you though, as someone who will be teaching biology sometime in the future, that I will be sneaking it in whenever applicable. :-D


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