August was National Breastfeeding Month here in the United States, and while many celebrations were taking place across the country to bring awareness to the importance of breastfeeding, I’d like to bring your attention to what one overseas military base does every year to support it’s active duty moms.
I was asked to go Aviano Air Base in Italy to help them celebrate and participate in their WBW activities. And what a wonderful series of activities did they have planned! Over the course of a week (July 27-Aug 2) I gave a number of presentations to both the AD mothers and to the command leadership regarding everything from hazardous materials exposure, pumps and pumping, to how supervisors can support AD mothers. I was also interviewed by Armed Forces Network radio and television (view the TV interview here). There was a WBW cake-cutting ceremony to mark the occasion as well. But the highlight of the trip was being the keynote speaker at the WBW celebration where the women who have breastfed exclusively for 6 months are presented a Command Coin. The Aviano WBW Command Coin has the Aviano Air Base insignia on one side and a lovely image of a civilian mom and a military mom back-to-back breastfeeding their babies with the words “Protect, Promote, Support Breastfeeding” encircling them. I was honored to both give the speech and to help give out the Command Coins to 13 AD military mothers and 52 military spouses.
It is remarkable to consider that 13 AD mothers faced the many challenges of breastfeeding, while serving in the military, and made it to 6 months of EXCLUSIVE breastfeeding. That is a huge accomplishment and one that these moms should be rightfully proud of. Active duty military mothers face numerous challenges such as returning to work at 6 weeks, separations of 12-18 hours each day, deployments away from baby, hostile work environments, hazardous materials exposure, and a lack of time and place to pump that civilian mothers do not encounter. It is a testament to the amazing support given to them by their command leadership and the IBCLC’s at Avaino; as well as the New Parent Support Team and the Aviano Breastfeeding Support Group that they are and continue to be successful.
Some of the stories that the AD moms shared with me are amazing: one mom’s baby refused to take bottles at all and for 6 months she would literally run to the base CDC to feed her baby 3 times a day. Other moms had milk supply issues or premature babies or needed to go TAD while their babies were young, and they still managed to provide exclusive breastmilk for 6 months. Their dedication and persistence has paid off. I met many beautiful and healthy breastfed babies growing strong on their mothers milk. Many of the mothers commented that they are more productive at work due to not having to take sick leave to care for their babies, that they are in better shape and able to pass the PFA with ease, and all of them said that they would remain in the military due to their ability to combine breastfeeding with their service. All of this is due feeling supported in their efforts to breastfeed. In addition, the AD moms commented that knowing that there were and are other AD military mothers breastfeeding on the base and being able to meet each other and share tips and techniques was very important to their success. They all also agreed that the Command Coin is special and something that they also strive towards receiving and that it helps them get through the rough patches on the way to 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding.
It was made clear to me that having a supportive command makes all the difference to the success of breastfeeding in the military. When the support comes from the top down, as shown here at Aviano Air Base, the moms are successful. This means that everyone from the base commander, to the medical group command, as well as the New Parent Support Team and the base breastfeeding support group come together and work as a team to provide information and support. This can be accomplished at any military base. Of course it helps that Aviano Air Base is a U.S. Air Force base and that the Air Force has one of the best breastfeeding policies of any of the services. Regardless, other military branches should take note of the accomplishments made at Aviano and implement similar measures, such as creating lactation rooms, providing information and support, and offering training to AD personnel on the importance of breastfeeding, and above all honoring the accomplishments made by the AD mothers who breastfeed for 6 months.
I was honored to be a part of the celebrations this year at Aviano Air Base and I hope to see more military commands support their AD breastfeeding mothers in a similar fashion in the future.