Phone helping is one of the core services that Breastfeeding Counselors can provide. Effective phone helping presents a few challenges in addition to general counseling techniques.
Establishing Respect and Trust
In many cases, a mother calling for help has no prior experience with Breastfeeding USA or a Breastfeeding Counselor. Without the benefit of a face-to-face meeting, BCs may need to spend extra time at the beginning of calls to help mothers feel welcome and comfortable. Establishing a trusting environment is important over the phone, where mothers can’t see body language and eye contact. A warm greeting and supportive, welcoming phrases can help put mothers at ease. Breastfeeding Counselors can personalize discussions as much as possible, using mothers’ and babies’ names frequently.
If callers are unfamiliar with Breastfeeding USA and its scope of services, it may be appropriate for BCs to provide some brief information about the organization at the beginning of calls (such as that found on the About Us pages of the Breastfeeding USA website). This information can help establish credibility and clarify expectations for calls, but be careful that the information doesn’t detract from callers’ concerns.
Collecting Information and Taking Notes
Phone conversations lack visual cues that build some basic avenues of understanding, so Breastfeeding Counselors doing phone helping typically need to ask more questions to assess a situation than they would in a face-to-face discussion. Using a pre-printed phone helping log with places to record answers to standard questions can help ensure that BCs have collected basic information about the problems. As a courtesy, BCs may mention that they are taking notes to ensure they provide information appropriate to callers’ particular circumstances.
Callers can get alarmed when asked questions about their situations, so Breastfeeding Counselors may want to vary their question styles when gathering information. Mixing the focus between factual information (e.g., birth weight, recent weight gain) and callers’ feelings about the situation can help make the conversation feel less like an interrogation. When possible, BCs can just let mothers tell their stories in full, and then recap for understanding, asking any necessary questions to obtain needed details about the situation.
Taking good notes allows Breastfeeding Counselors to offer appropriate information and suggestions to address each mother’s situation. Accurate logs of conversations include both the information provided by callers and any solutions proposed by BCs. Breastfeeding Counselors can re-check their logs to refresh their memories of a specific situation if a mother calls back at a later time (whether she is calling about the same problem or something new). Phone logs also serve as supporting documentation in the very unlikely event that a claim is made under the Breastfeeding USA professional liability insurance policy. Keeping blank log forms, pens, and any resource materials in a handy place near the phone makes it easy for BCs to log each call.
Another key challenge in phone helping is dealing with interruptions and distractions during calls. Maybe it’s just perception, but many mothers relate that their children become particularly needy whenever the phone rings. As a mother-to-mother support organization, Breastfeeding USA expects Breastfeeding Counselors to work their volunteer responsibilities around meeting the needs of their own children. This may require flexibility when doing phone helping, even for women who are adept at multi-tasking. Some BCs keep a stash of quiet toys near the phone to engage their children while they are taking helping calls. Whenever a BC finds that she cannot focus on a helping call due to distractions, she should politely explain this to the caller and offer to return the call at a later time when she can give the mother her full attention. Some BCs ask for a caller’s phone number right at the start of a call in the event that the call drops or an emergency arises during the call requiring a later callback.
Another challenge in doing phone helping is that Breastfeeding Counselors must convey all the information by voice. While this approach works well for auditory learners, mothers with other learning styles may struggle to understand the suggested solutions with only verbal direction. Towards the end of the call, BCs can offer to provide additional information (including handouts, diagrams, links to documents or videos on the internet, etc.) via email or mail after the call, and suggest that a mother can call back upon receiving the information with any additional questions or concerns.
Many mothers benefit from a more formal follow-up within a few days of the initial call, especially for situations where breastfeeding is not going well. A few days between calls allows mothers to try out some of the recommendations and assess progress in resolving problems. Breastfeeding Counselors might offer to call back if they don’t hear from a mother before a certain time. If the situation warrants it, and a Breastfeeding Counselor is available for in-person helping, she can schedule a time to meet with a mother face-to-face. If a BC refers a mother to someone else (another counselor, IBCLC, health care provider, etc.), she should follow up with the mother to determine whether the referral was helpful. Follow-up ensures that a Breastfeeding Counselor provided effective phone helping to address a mother’s problem.