Booby Traps Series: Why don’t we get better breastfeeding care from our nurses?

At a conference last year, I heard a nurse speaking about the importance of helping mothers with breastfeeding.

“If you were a nurse,” she said, “and you knew for a fact that 80% of your patients were going to have gall bladder surgery, you’d be sure to know a lot about how to help someone who is having gall bladder surgery, right?

“Well,” she said, “80% of our moms are going to initiate breastfeeding, so don’t you think all maternity nurses should know a lot about how to help with breastfeeding?”

You’d think so.  But the unfortunate truth is that the care we get from our nurses can be very uneven.

Of course, there are outstanding, wonderful nurses who go far out of their way to help moms with breastfeeding.  “Angels” is how one mom recently described those nurses to me.  I know many personally.

But there is also no question that many moms get substandard breastfeeding care from their nurses.  And research confirms the problem.  Here are just two studies which illustrate the problem:

  • A decent sized study of nurses in pediatric offices in North Carolina found that “The nurses surveyed were involved in breastfeeding support, yet many had incorrect information and negative attitudes toward breastfeeding.”
  • This small study of baccalaureate nursing students in Virginia who had completed their obstetric nursing training in breastfeeding found that most (85%) did not know that breastfeeding is recommended for the first year of an infant’s life, only five of the 80 surveyed participants knew the proper management of mastitis, and well over one third (41.3%) of the participants opposed breastfeeding in public.

Why is this?  There are likely many factors, including:

  • Poor or inadequate training:  One review found that “There is currently a lack of comprehensive breastfeeding content in nursing curricula across the United States”
  • Attitudes get in the way.  One study of nurses at a hospital where breastfeeding rates were very low concluded that “nurses need support and continuing education to identify personal bias and knowledge deficits which hinder breastfeeding promotion.”
  • Too little time?  Breastfeeding support is sometimes viewed as too time consuming given the demands placed on nurses.  But this doesn’t explain why some hospitals seem to do it better than others under similar conditions.

Fortunately, evidence is building that, just as with pediatricians, if you provide good training to nurses their skills will improve and moms will be more successful with breastfeeding.

As Diane Spatz, who has written for Best for Babes about breastfeeding in NICUs, says, “educated health professionals transform breastfeeding culture.”  If this is true, we need to do a far better job of training and fostering supportive attitudes among our nurses.

Did you have great breastfeeding care from your nurses?  Substandard care?  How did it impact your breastfeeding experience?

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10 Comments | Last revised on 04/30/2013

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