Op-Ed: Telehealth Services Can Give Great Support to New and Expectant Mothers

Remote access to key health care providers is especially important for new mothers during the COVID-19 crisis

I have a happy, healthy, exclusively breastfed 6-month-old baby. This is no small feat. In fact, without the support of several maternal health care workers, this would have been impossible.

Had I listened to the pediatricians who expressed concern about the baby’s weight gain but didn’t observe a feeding or provide lactation recommendations, I might’ve given up. It was only through services provided by my local maternal health care providers that we were able to thrive. I was fortunate that these care providers offered in-person visits, but we also took advantage of their telehealth services, including video-chat consults, phone calls, and text message support.

At a time when growing families may not have the luxury of visiting doctor’s offices in person, parents can invite local maternal health professionals into their homes virtually through telehealth consultations. And luckily, many of these professionals — lactation consultants, childbirth educators, doulas, physical therapists, nurses, and midwives — already have years of experience providing this help remotely.

During my pregnancy, my best friend told me that the most valuable gift for a new mom would be a home visit with a lactation consultant. I appreciated her advice, but I figured that between the lactation consultant at the hospital and my postpartum doula visit, I’d be fine.

After I gave birth, the nurses and lactation consultants who responded to my frequent calls were my heroes.

Sadly, in light of COVID-19, new and expecting mothers will have more limited access to this type of in-person care, and will probably be rushed out of the hospital to reduce their risk of exposure.

‘Learn the steps’

Even though many moms had warned me, and despite all of the assistance I received at the hospital and upon first returning home, I still wasn’t prepared for the challenges of breastfeeding. I sobbed leaving the hospital because I didn’t think we could take care of the baby without expert help. As it turns out, I was right.

“Breastfeeding is a dance,” a local pediatric physical therapist told me, “and you both have to learn the steps.”

Reflecting on our journey over the last sixth months, I can attest that her maxim was only partially accurate. Yes, we had to learn the steps. But what she left out is that the steps are constantly changing. As experienced parents can tell you, right when you think you have something figured out, it changes.

This is why I’m an active member of my local new mom support groups run by maternal health experts — groups that, thankfully, are still running virtually amid the COVID-19 crisis because they create a vital community for growing families.

What I’ve learned over months of sharing and listening is that there are many common questions: Is my baby eating enough? Why is my baby crying? Why won’t my baby sleep? And there is so much collective wisdom and empathy to soak up from other mothers.

But every baby is different. Second-time moms often find that the tried-and-true tricks that helped their first baby are completely ineffective with their second. It can take more than a late-night Google search, a phone call to Grandma, or an unsolicited suggestion from a stranger at Target to address many of these important questions.

It’s easier than ever to find a local expert through websites like Zip Milk and ILCA.org, support groups like La Leche League, and referrals from other moms on social media.

Telehealth services were a big help

In my experience, a telehealth consult can provide almost all of the benefits of an in-person visit both before and after childbirth. For example, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant can take a thorough history, observe the mother and baby, recommend and assist with course corrections, and answer questions as they come up in real time.

In contrast to the pediatricians who expressed concerns but provided limited solutions, my maternal health care workers made it their mission to help me meet my goals. They were keen observers, empathic listeners, and tenacious investigators.

They might’ve charged for an hour-long visit, but they regularly stayed late. They ignored my messy hair and living room. They replied to my panicky 3 a.m. emails by 7 a.m., watched videos I texted to evaluate new issues, and sent confetti emojis when I shared photos of small victories. When necessary, they referred me to other experts who were equally as attentive and generous.

“Unfortunately, not all families have equal access and not all providers can utilize telehealth,” says maternal health educator and activist Jill Wodnick. “Centering the needs of expectant and new parents to create pilot programs designed for telehealth that are specific to lactation is a critical tool for addressing disparities.”

I wish that every mom could reap the benefits of assistance from maternal health professionals and find their tribe of fellow moms.

Luckily, through technology, we still can.