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Heather Stephens's picture

Imagine flying from Italy to Spain, then boarding another plane from Spain to Virginia, and finally, driving down from Virginia to Tennessee all in a matter of days just to turn around and fly out to California. Sounds exhausting, right?

Now add a 5-month-old breastfeeding baby to the mix who is constantly restless, feeding, crying and pooping. When my husband, who is in the military, was transferred to the United States from Italy this is exactly what we experienced. It is a very common, real experience for many military families.

I know I’m not alone when I say: I’ve been separated from my husband for months. I’ve traveled alone to unfamiliar, foreign places where I didn’t speak the languages. I’ve traveled alone with an infant. I’ve been away from my family and friends for long periods of time.

As you can imagine, raising a family while you or your spouse is in the military can be challenging. The good news is there are many programs out there that help military families. While I was in Italy, I enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program after I had my son. They provided me with information about healthy eating and gave me checks for nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, peanut butter, milk, and so on.

Many WIC programs also provide cooking classes and breastfeeding support. The WIC office I was going to at the time didn’t provide breastfeeding support. However, I was lucky enough to get breastfeeding support from a Navy Marine Corps Relief Society nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) named Ann. Additionally, a local mom held routine support groups on base for breastfeeding moms.

I credit Ann and the woman who later replaced her for my success with breastfeeding my son. Before giving birth, I thought I had educated myself all about breastfeeding, including reading books and watching videos. However, it was Ann with all of her experience who saved the day when my son was having difficulty latching. She taught me all about breastfeeding, and she stuck by me during my most difficult, tear-inducing moments. She was there for me when I had no one else to lean on or learn from.

When my husband and I returned stateside, I found myself so inspired by the support Ann had provided me with that I chose to return to the workforce as a breastfeeding peer counselor for WIC. Today, I help moms with their breastfeeding challenges. I find that being a military spouse gives me an advantage with fellow military families because they know I can understand and relate to their experiences.

Recently, I helped an active duty mom who was facing some breastfeeding challenges in her workplace. She was the first woman in her workplace to breastfeed, and her supervisor was unfamiliar with the proper protocol. The breastfeeding policies for each military branch differ. However, the employer must determine/allow a reasonable amount of time to allow mothers to pump or breastfeed. I was able to provide the active duty mom with the policies for her branch and a referral for her employer, so they could make reasonable accommodations for her.

Guidance and referrals are just a few of the services that WIC offers breastfeeding moms. Some WIC offices provide after-hours breastfeeding counseling and support via phone, text or email. WIC also helps connect breastfeeding moms with other breastfeeding moms, so they can share their experiences and create a support network through the peer counseling program. In particular, our organization offers help from a lactation expert and a Facebook support group for moms in the peer counseling program.

These services can be especially helpful to military families who may lack the support network or resources they need to get by. Some military families wrongly assume they don’t qualify for WIC. However, WIC excludes certain pays and allowances (i.e.: Basic Housing Allowance, Family Separation Housing, Overseas Housing Allowance, etc.), which makes some military families eligible. Additionally, WIC offers locations on base in different cities, states and countries, which means families can seamlessly transfer. Families can also use their WIC checks at the commissary.  Learn more about the WIC program, and the services it offers.

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