While pregnancy is peppered with positive anticipation in all shapes and sizes, little energy is spent considering the great “what comes next” of parenthood. The questions related to breast-feeding are among the most intimate. For moms who decide to breast-feed, their new best friend quickly becomes the local breast-feeding center.

Be it the older, established support sites, smaller community centers or newer, grant-funded pop-up support groups such as those in Detroit and Philadelphia — these are often the support that new mothers around the country need.

Mothers come for the technical fix and then stay for the community

Support that was omnipresent as we lived with our tribes — our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters — is a thing of the past.

“Cultures that have retained breast-feeding traditions all have a period of community support during which mothers are tended to and cared for,” says Gina Caruso, deputy director of the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington. “Our culture is devoid of this tradition and beyond that it doesn’t have any programs set up to mimic these traditions.”

We are told to simply put on the mom hat, master the tasks at hand and return to work in short order. But of course that’s much more complex than it may seem. Take breast-feeding: Getting baby to latch and nurse is just one step. Avoiding painful infections, handling breast milk at home, on the road or at work, and choosing the right tools and techniques are all necessary to learn as well. And this requires a village’s worth of insight.

Breast-feeding centers

The Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington began as an overcrowded K Street staple in 1998. Founder Pat Shelly’s vision grew over the years to include a retail storefront, individual consultations, a robust class curriculum (with long waiting lists) and a rental outpost. “I built the center around asking and answering the question of what women needed and making sure that it was available to her. I also knew women wanted to share experiences and I wanted to create just the right environment for them,” Shelly says.

Shelly spent so much time with new mothers, it was there that she noticed a growing number with symptoms of postpartum depression. In response, she and her team started using the Edinburgh score, the guide for identifying risks of PPD, at the start of every client’s enrollment to ensure higher-risk mothers would always be identified and get the help they needed.

The Center is about to move to a larger space which will address many parental needs (dads included) through classes, groups and support systems. It will also feature a multi-user pumping lounge for any mother who needs it. The space is open to all, from local moms (great for pumping/working moms in such an office-rich neighborhood) to traveling moms. The space will have two hospital-grade pumps, plush seating and the added bonus of support in the form of lactation consultants and retail, in case a mom forgot anything.

“One of the most beautiful things is seeing a few moms in the shop who’ve never met one another, but are immediately so supportive of one another,” Caruso says. And that was the unexpected benefit: the now-expected community.

What do these women find at breast-feeding centers?

First-time mother, Megan Darmody, gave birth to her son Brooks in June. She felt well prepared for motherhood, but not for the struggles of feeding her son. “Brooks and I were struggling, our anatomies did not match,” she says. She brought a lactation consultant into her home and was given a quick fix — a nipple shield. It helped, but left Darmody feeling shunned by some online nursing communities and other places where she looked for support because they disagreed with the practice.

Feeding was getting better, but her confidence and esteem dropped. While visiting her mother in North Carolina, she recognized how isolated she felt. Upon arriving back in Washington, her first phone call was to the Breastfeeding Center.

“I had a lot of questions on my mind — ranging warning signs for postpartum depression, to amounts of pumped milk needed to stockpile before I returned to work,” she says. “I was amazed at how easy it was to get the answers I needed and without stigma or judgment and that finally felt good.” She found herself lingering in the halls of the center to interact with other mothers.

Essential, evolving resources

There is no shortage of need for these centers and the full spectrum of technical and emotional support offered through the sisterhood they create. Women continue to live away from their families, leaving new mothers in need of the nurturing once provided by wise mothers and loving sisters. Breast-feeding centers are a critical part of a woman’s success however she defines it. They provide an expertise in a wide range of essential topics offering insight about PPD, infant safety and travel with baby as they do about latch and holds. Similarly, as mothers continue to rush back to work with little understanding of their newfound roles and responsibilities, they turn to centers to offer experience, mastery of gear and even hacks for finding child care and negotiating flextime.

But most essential is the community — the acceptance which lives within the walls of breast-feeding centers and the communities created to support each other.

Julia Beck is the founder of the It’s Working Project and Forty Weeks. She tweets @TheJuliaBeck.

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