CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton: My Breastfeeding Story

Dr. Jennifer Ashton recently talked with Lactation Consultant Freda Rosenfeld about breastfeeding challenges  in this video on CBSNews.com.   There was a lot we loved about the video (read our list here), but we especially appreciated that Dr. Ashton candidly shared that she struggled with breastfeeding too . . . so we asked her to share her story.  Not only do we think moms will be able to relate to it (we did!) but we hope it puts a spotlight on the “Booby Trap” of too many doctors graduating from medical school without a lick of training on human lactation, or how to refer breastfeeding moms to a specialist (IBCLC) if needed.  (Hopefully, with the efforts of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, that will change.)  We’ve put some numbered notes & resources at the end. Special thanks to People.com for linking to the story.

Dr. Jennifer Ashton’s Breastfeeding Story

Jennifer Ashton, MD, FACOG, CBS News Medical Correspondent

So there I was, half-way through medical school, president of my medical school class and a real Type A personality.  And…I was a first-time mommy. As I looked down at my newborn son in my arms, all I could think of was wanting to go home from the hospital and start this new and exciting phase in our lives. Therefore, when the lactation consultant came into my hospital room and asked if I had any questions about breastfeeding, I hastily dismissed her with a terse, “No thank you, I’ve got it under control!” BIG MISTAKE! Without realizing it, I was about to learn that having a body part, does not guarantee that you know how to use it. I thought breastfeeding would be a piece of cake. Afterall, I had breasts, my baby had a mouth; like a lock and key, breastfeeding would just ‘happen.’ Boy, was I wrong.

I left the hospital just 25 hours after giving birth. I felt like I had a pretty good support system at home. My husband was a physician and my mother was a former pediatric nurse. I assumed that if I could make it through medical school, I could self- teach breastfeeding. Unfortunately, I made one mistake after another! Luckily for me, moms don’t get graded on breastfeeding, because I think I would have gotten a D! (1)

The first issue arose when I found the latching-on process to be so excruciatingly painful that I just dreaded it. Wanting desperately to help, my mom suggested that I use nipple shields. She got me some, and I used them. They did lessen the pain, but for me, they also lessened the amount of milk I produced. (2) Of course, I didn’t even really understand about how to position my baby properly on my nipple so that the latch-on wouldn’t hurt so much so all I knew was that he was starving and I didn’t have enough milk. At his one week pediatrics visit, he had lost 14% of his birth weight and my pediatrician told me that if his weight didn’t come up, he would need to be admitted to the hospital. He told me to begin giving him formula immediately and that I could continue to nurse around the formula. (3) 

I was devastated. I felt like a failure (something I wasn’t used to) and was frustrated, tired and hormonal (4). It was awful. I was also angry at my mom, because I felt that her suggestion wound up sabotaging my milk production, which was like adding fuel to the fire of difficulties my baby and I were having. I know she was only trying to help, but she became my target of negativity over the first 10 days of attempted breastfeeding. I wound up feeding him primarily formula and ‘comfort nursed’ at the end of each formula feeding for 15 minutes or so, but hardly produced more than 1 oz of milk. I continued this for 3 months, until I went back to med school.

When I became pregnant with my second child, I was determined to master breastfeeding. I looked at the process as if it were a course in school…and I was planning to get an A+! In my final month of pregnancy, I approached breastfeeding with both barrels loaded. I bought books, I bought a double-electric breast pump, I lined up lactation consultants, I bought lanolin ointment, bras, supplements, etc. etc. etc. You name it, I had it. After I delivered, I went to every breastfeeding class the hospital offered. I stayed in the hospital the full 48 hours (almost to the minute) so that I could take full advantage of the lactation consultants on staff there. I was going for a figurative PhD in breastfeeding! I am happy to say that this time, my experience was totally different!

Dr. Ashton's Book--we haven't reviewed it yet, but hope Dr. Ashton will advocate for helping to normalize breastfeeding in the attitudes of girls and teenagers.

To begin with, there was less pain. I was much less stressed, more informed, and more prepared. And I had many resources to help trouble-shoot when I hit little bumps in the road. As a result, my baby was on my breast a lot, and therefore, I made more milk than a dairy farm! I found the pump to be incredibly helpful for middle of the night engorgement times when the baby would be sleeping and I wouldn’t want to wake her. I found the process to much different this time around and I felt as if I had experienced both extremes of the breastfeeding spectrum.

Now, as an Ob-Gyn, I sometimes share my personal experiences with my patients so that they can learn from my mistakes. I also found that the hopes and goals of every woman is different, and should be respected. (5) Every individual will and should have a different image of how she wants to feed her baby, and this is normal. I felt that my mistakes were due to lack of knowledge and so I usually make that my underlying message: educate yourself, plan for bumps in the road and try to do the best you can for both your baby and you. (6)  There is no one “gold-standard” where breast-feeding experiences are concerned, but I hope that with knowledge, support and preparation, more women can and will breastfeed their babies. We know that the plethora of health benefits to both mom and baby are worth the effort!

Jennifer Ashton, MD, FACOG is an Ob/Gyn and is the Medical Correspondent for the CBS News Network and can be seen daily on The Early Show and regularly on The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.  Dr. Ashton received the prestigious Columbia  Alfred DuPont Award for Excellence in Journalism for her work on CBS’s Children of The Recession Series.   Dr. Ashton is a regular expert guest on The Dr. Oz Show, and has appeared on The Learning Channel’s (TLC) A Baby Story, and PBS. From 2006-2009, Dr. Ashton appeared on the Fox News Channel as a medical contributor and has been a featured expert guest on Oprah & Friends on satellite XM radio with Dr. Mehmet Oz.   Her book, The Body Scoop for Girls, Penguin Publishers, was released in January of 2010, and is a relatable guidebook for teenage health.   Dr. Ashton is on the Attending staff of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Englewood, NJ, an affiliate of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.  Her private medical practice, Hygeia Gynecology, is also located in Englewood, NJ, where she treats women of all ages for both medical and surgical gynecologic conditions, and treats such primary care issues such as Depression, Hypertension and Obesity. In January, 2010, Dr. Ashton travelled to Haiti with a medical team where she treated victims of the earthquake for 8 days.  During this time, she also related her experiences for CBS News on their national tv broadcasts.

Best for Babes Notes:

1) Moms don’t get graded on breastfeeding, but hospitals should:  According to the CDC, most hospitals score a D on breastfeeding support.  No wonder even doctors end up with unforeseen and unnecessary breastfeeding problems.

2) Beware of hospitals or health professionals that hand out nipple shields like candy.   Under the care of an expert IBCLC they can be part of a short-term strategy to fix breastfeeding problems but too many companies market them aggressively without regard for the problems they can cause.

3) Sounds to us like Dr. Ashton did not have a pediatrician who was trained in even the basics of breastfeeding management or referral.  (Are you expecting?  Make sure you line up a top-notch A-Team)  He should have referred her to an excellent, independent IBCLC; most of the time if you fix the latch baby will gain weight.  Supplementation is a slippery slope and often causes more problems.

4) If you couldn’t breastfeed, don’t blame yourself, or feel guilty, it is not your fault!  We need more women to get angry and help us break down the barriers to breastfeeding.   Another doctor who was set up to fail, Dr. Melissa Bartick, shows just how most moms are being set up to fail by the “Booby Traps” in this piece from the Huffington Post.

5) This is right in line with our Credo, that all moms deserve respect, compassion and to be cheered on coached and celebrated, whether they breastfeed for 2 weeks or 2 years. 

6) Great advice, Dr. Ashton!  Here are our tools to help moms get off to the best start:   Get Your Best Game On, Girlfriend; The Learning Curve; and the Ultimate Breastfeeding Preparation Checklist



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