Baby Cafés combine community with expertise to help parents breastfeed

More than 140 support groups in cities across the country connect new parents with licensed lactation consultants, culturally relevant support, and the community they need.

When Amanda, a Boston-area mom, had her first child in December 2017, the pregnancy and delivery went smoothly. So it came as a surprise to her that breastfeeding – something she knew she wanted to do but hadn’t given much thought to before – was such a challenge.

“In the beginning it was very, very painful for me. Everyone told me everything was fine after two weeks,” says Amanda. But it wasn’t.

The tearful fight continued. In January 2018, her pediatrician recommended that she visit a local Baby Café, site of a nationwide, free and informal breastfeeding support group that offers breastfeeding support. Even though breastfeeding for the duo wouldn’t work out until their daughter was four months old, Amanda found the support she needed to get through it. “There’s no way I would have continued without Baby Café because I didn’t know what to do or hear success stories about how it could still work,” she says.

With 145 city locations across the United States, Baby Café USA serves women like Amanda every step of the way in their breastfeeding journey, as well as trans and non-binary parents who are breastfeeding. From pumping to weaning and everything in between, Baby Café services are free. Sessions are led by trained professionals who are either themselves International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) or provide access to one. All baby cafes have baby scales (an important tool for measuring a baby’s weight and therefore how much milk he is getting) and can refer to additional specialized services in the area.

The idea was developed by RN and IBCLC Lucia Jenkins after working with La Leche League, an international breastfeeding organization, in the ’80s and ’90s.

“I’ve seen so many people who start breastfeeding and then hit a snag when they go back to work after about three months,” says Jenkins. “But even before that, people started nursing in the hospital, but when they got home and didn’t have resources and there was nobody to support them or help them solve a problem,” they stopped and missed the benefits of breastfeeding, that mothers and babies enjoy.

While the La Leche League offered amazing support to women, “they didn’t have the professional capacity to actually solve complicated problems,” says Jenkins. “I realized we needed something that would be like the La Leche League and its accompanying social gathering support model, but with a professional twist.”

So Jenkins went to New Zealand and the UK in the early 2000s to learn from the breastfeeding efforts there. She discovered Baby Cafés in the UK, but shortly after her visit, the women she met there told her they couldn’t continue. So “they kindly gave me permission to have the name and start Baby Café USA,” says Jenkins. In 2004, she began working on standards of care for her vision before opening her first café in a Boston-area hospital two years later. Today there are baby cafes in 32 states.

From the start, Jenkins knew the meetings needed to be free, frequent, and in a place where women could not only resolve breastfeeding issues with the help of licensed professionals, but also join a community. “Part of it is changing the paradigm in the United States,” says Jenkins. “If someone breastfeeds successfully, they breastfeed more children and also help their friends and fellow mothers to breastfeed.”

It was also important to make the entire operation flexible and cost-effective. There are three levels for baby cafes. First-tier cafes have an IBCLC at every meeting. Second-tier cafes are run by multiple people, such as a nurse or midwife, at least one of whom is an IBCLC. Third-tier cafes are operated exclusively by alternative practitioners who provide weekly briefings for an IBCLC.

The reason for the tiers, Jenkins explains, is that baby café care is not only culturally relevant, it’s actually possible. “There are areas of the country where there are no IBCLCs” — let alone IBCLCs of color — “and in places where the majority of the population is black and brown, we need black and brown experts,” says Jenkins. “The idea is that baby cafes can be staffed with what’s available in the community,” she adds, including limited funding.

The tiers also create the opportunity for more cost-effective models. Their nonprofit’s initial license is $750, which includes $350 of training that can be attended by as many people as the new site wants. To ensure required standards of care are maintained, each cafe must renew its license for $200, or just $100 for up to four satellite Baby Cafe locations originating from a “mother” Baby Cafe. The annual cost of running the cafe ranges from about $8,000 to $20,000 per year, depending on the tier.

The aim is to keep the cost of running a cafe down by running out of donated space, with the additional expenses, such as B. the payment of IBCLCs, be kept low enough to be covered by small grants from the community. From YMCAs to dental offices, milk banks and more, Jenkins has found that there are many partners in the community willing to help. “Psychiatric centers, WIC offices, chiropractic offices — they all open their rooms often,” says Jenkins.

Especially when the benefits are so clear. Jenkins carefully tracked data with QR codes and anonymized responses. “The most common comment we hear from women is, ‘I wouldn’t be breastfeeding today without Baby Cafés.'”

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, US News & World Report,, and others. She holds an MA in Social Design with a specialization in Intervention Design from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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