To effectively counsel breastfeeding mothers requires Breastfeeding Counselors to use good listening skills, and to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. Breastfeeding Counselors should provide information in a way that allows mothers to take responsibility for their own circumstances. Each mother is influenced by her own beliefs and previous experience, so every counseling situation is unique; BCs need to be flexible in their thinking and assessment.
Respect and Trust
An environment that fosters mutual respect and trust is vital to effective mother-to-mother support. The relationship starts with the first contact, and Breastfeeding Counselors can make mothers comfortable with positive body language, appropriate eye contact, and a warm greeting.
To earn the respect of mothers in a counseling situation, BCs should display self-confidence, have a strong grasp of the subject matter, yet still be approachable and not overbearing. Mothers may want help with personal situations that are not purely about breastfeeding--good counselors will know when a textbook answer should take a backseat to a sympathetic ear. Breastfeeding Counselors need to be flexible and adapt their approach in different situations. They also need to recognize that they may not always have the answers and may learn from the mothers they are counseling.
Breastfeeding Counselors collect necessary background information while putting mothers at ease by being welcoming and empathetic. Asking open-ended questions allows mothers to tell their stories without feeling interrogated. Mothers may express strong emotions when explaining their situations. While confirming facts, Breastfeeding Counselors can also reflect back and validate mothers’ feelings, which may help mothers be more receptive to possible solutions. Taking notes helps Breastfeeding Counselors to get the full story and keep an accurate log of discussions; as a courtesy, BCs should let mothers know that they are taking notes to ensure that they can provide information appropriate to each mother’s particular circumstances.
After assessing each mother’s situation, Breastfeeding Counselors can offer information that helps the mother decide what action to take. Breastfeeding Counselors need to provide evidence-based information, and not frame it as advice (e.g., “I think you should do this”). Offering information rather than advice shows respect for a mother’s ability to take responsibility for her actions, which encourages her autonomy.
Breastfeeding Counselors can present a variety of options appropriate to the situation and allow each mother to select the option with which she is most comfortable. This approach also encourages a mother to persevere and try diverse solutions to the problem. What works for one mother may not work for another in a similar situation.
Mothers are more likely to retain information in small amounts (five or six main points or less), so BCs should not overwhelm mothers with too much information at one time. Mothers can remember options better if they are able to try them out while talking with BCs, or soon after. Breastfeeding Counselors can acknowledge that sometimes it’s difficult to process information in emotional situations, and may offer a follow-up to provide more materials at a later time. Following up with mothers also gives BCs opportunities to present the information in different ways, which respects mothers’ various learning styles: visual learners appreciate handouts, diagrams, and illustrations; auditory learners like podcasts, videos, and phone discussions; and kinesthetic learners respond well to hands-on activities and opportunities to practice techniques themselves.
When More Information Is Needed
Although Breastfeeding Counselors are trained with information about the normal course of breastfeeding, some mothers will have concerns that require more technical information and support that goes beyond that norm. When a Breastfeeding Counselor cannot immediately provide information relevant to a mother’s concern, she should be frank and let her know that she needs to consult additional resources to address the mother’s particular situation. The Breastfeeding Counselor can confirm that her notes are accurate, and then schedule a time with the mother to get back to her with information. To get more information, Breastfeeding Counselors may consult written or online resources, consult with other Breastfeeding Counselors (including via the BC discussion email group, and/or consult with BRAID to identify options appropriate for a mother’s situation. Recognize that sometimes a mother may need a referral for professional support–an IBCLC, pediatrician, OB/GYN and/or midwife, therapist, or social worker. Breastfeeding Counselors may provide referral contact information without making an endorsement. Breastfeeding Counselors are not health care professionals and may not prescribe any medical treatments, but may only present information for a mother to discuss with her health care providers.
When concluding a counseling session, Breastfeeding Counselors should verify that mothers understand the options presented and don’t need more information at that time. Depending on the complexity or severity of the problem, BCs can encourage mothers to contact them again with additional questions, or can schedule times to follow up on issues. An empathetic and warm good-bye to end a session will leave mothers feeling both positive and encouraged.