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Lactation Consultant Navigates Helping New Parents Amid Pandemic06:22
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In the series My COVID Economy, we ask: How has the coronavirus affected your work or financial life? To share your story, check out the original call out.

Being a new parent is always challenging, but during this time of social distancing and worries about the coronavirus, it’s even more so. That’s also true for professionals, like Rachel O'Brien, who provide support for new parents.

O'Brien is a lactation consultant from Sudbury. In March, when the pandemic took hold here, the private practice she'd spent several years building faced a new challenge: suddenly, a key part of the service she offers, the in-person house call, became risky.

The following are excerpts from an interview with O'Brien and her responses to our online questionnaire, edited for length and clarity.


My COVID Economy: Rachel O'Brien

For the past few months, lactation consultant Rachel O'Brien has been seeing clients by video chat rather than in person. (Courtesy: Charlotte O’Brien)
For the past few months, lactation consultant Rachel O'Brien has been seeing clients by video chat rather than in person. (Courtesy: Charlotte O’Brien)

How has the coronavirus impacted your work or financial life?

I am an IBCLC, which is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, which means I work with breastfeeding families and make sure that their babies stay healthy and well fed.

About that week of March 15th, it kind of felt like a hammer dropped, because suddenly all these parents who had just been having a normal pregnancy up until that point, all the sudden everything changed for them.

Our normal job is to go to people's houses and help them. And suddenly you're not supposed to leave the house, and you're not supposed to have anyone come to your house.

There was a good month and a half where maybe I would see one or two people a week, which for me was a huge difference. There was one whole week where I had nobody.

The thing about owning your own business and being the only person in the business is you totally sink or swim all by yourself, which feels great when you're swimming. But it feels terrifying when you sink, and you realize, "I have sunk all of this time ... And there's no one I can fall back on."

Without being able to see clients in person, how have you adapted? 

What I'm doing right now is I'm doing primarily visits on Google Meet, which is the HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] compliant version of Google Hangouts.

It's tricky. I realize how much of our normal job is stuff that we're visually assessing and stuff that we're feeling with our hands sometimes that we we can't really see as well [on a video chat].

When we're in person with families, a lot of it is just having somebody in the room who is taking a calm breath with you when you feel like things are completely out of control.

If someone's calling you, it's not because things are going great for them, right? Like cardiac surgeons don't get to see people who have great hearts. So, it is always emotional, and people are always really keyed up when we get to their houses. And a big part of it is just talking them down and kind of meeting them where they are.

When I'm in person with them, I work with the babies a lot. I talk to the babies. I personally do oral exams on the babies. So, you know, I put gloves on, and I put my finger in the baby's mouth. I pay attention to how their tongue moves, how their lips move. I can't do that virtually.

On concerns about new moms coping more on their own, without all the usual in-person visits from friends, family and caregivers like her:

People are falling through the cracks. I mean, there are definitely consequences to a baby not eating enough to be able to grow. They have to eat enough to grow. It's important for their brain health. It's important for their whole body.

How would you describe your financial situation?

I am the primary wage earner for my family, and my income has dropped significantly.

We have $80,000 in student loan debt hanging over our heads.

Three kids to feed adds up fast.

Looking forward, what do you expect to happen with your business?

I think we are in a weird situation because nothing in any of the governor's stuff talks about lactation.

We don't have specific written guidelines for us. So each of us has to make our own determination as to what we feel is right, and what we feel is safe.

I'm not so much worried about our family because we don't have any risk factors and we're young and we're healthy, which is wonderful, but I'm very worried about possibly being the one who brings the virus to one of these families with a newborn.

I do think that we are going to be in a baby boom nine or 10 months after March.

You always have to count nine or 10 months out from whatever is happening now to figure out what will happen in the future.

This job sounds more intense than I would've guessed. 

I don't want to make it all sound terrible, because it's not. There's a lot of beautiful stuff that happens, but there's also a lot of crying.

When something works, right. And the parents get that "Aha!" moment, or the baby finally calms down for a second, and you see that the baby just made some movement and the parents go, "Oh, I know what that means," it is beautiful. It is gorgeous.

This segment aired on June 18, 2020.

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Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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