Natashia Conner Goes from Mom to Mother Partner to IBCLC to Health Equity Advocate
We met Dr. Natashia Conner where so many people meet these days – on Facebook. In a moment of reflection during National Black History Month 2022, she posted about her journey and the impact Baby-Friendly has had on her life and career. So, we reached out to Natashia to learn more about her story. And what a story it is.
“I Wanted that Bonding Experience”
Natashia with her five children
Natashia’s journey began about 14 years ago with the birth of her first son, Israel. She delivered the child at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the same hospital where she would later serve as a Mother Partner to help guide the facility in its pursuit of Baby-Friendly designation, and then later as an IBCLC to support mother-baby care. But that came much later. First, there was the birth.
“I had my first son after a car accident,” recalls Natashia. “At that time, they weren’t Baby-Friendly, so I didn’t really have the support I needed. I was having seizures, but I wanted to breastfeed. But I was constantly separated from him and he was discharged before me with formula. I had post-partum depression because of it. I didn’t feel like I was able to bond with him, and it took me almost a year to recover from that.”
Natashia had wanted to breastfeed despite the fact that no one in her family had done so before.
“I knew it was going to be healthier for him,” she says. “But I wanted that bonding experience more than anything. I grew up with my mom and my dad never together, so I came from a broken home – and I felt that, even as an adult. So for me, that experience of being able to bond and have a connection that I didn’t have as a child myself, it was really important for me to do that, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted the experience of being able to bond with my baby.”
Unfortunately, her seizures got in the way of her plans, and she didn’t feel supported in her breastfeeding goals at all. Natashia’s then-husband took care of the baby at home while she remained in the hospital.
“Bent on getting it right”
Understandably, when she had her second son, Immanuel, less than a year later, she was terrified.
“I remembered how bad an experience I had and I was scared I was going to die,” she recalls.
Natashia once again delivered at the same facility and was steadfast in her committed to breastfeeding, although the hospital was not yet Baby-Friendly designated at this point.
“I was like, I’m going to give it a shot again because I didn’t get to do it last time,” she says. “And I was bent on getting it right, or at least trying.”
This time, she was able to breastfeed even though she experienced significant hemorrhaging due to a placental abruption. Nevertheless, she exclusively breastfed the child for the first two or three months until he started weaning.
“This was before I knew better,” she laughs. “But I was just so happy that I was able to breastfeed him at that point. This is why I’m so passionate about Baby-Friendly.
“I just wanted to help women”
By the time her third child came along – a daughter, Gabrielle, five years later, Natashia had completed an associate’s degree from Cincinnati State and was working toward her bachelor’s degree at Union Institute and University in Cincinnati.
“I couldn’t make up my mind at that point what I wanted to focus on,” she says. “But because I had such horrible birth experiences with my first two kids, I knew I just wanted to help women. So, I started studying maternal child health with a focus on lactation, in preparation for becoming an IBCLC. I wanted to help other moms that may have been in a similar situation to me.”
“Wait, what is that?”
As part of her bachelor’s program, she was required to teach classes about lactation in the community and for nurses.
“So, I’m teaching a free class at the library, she remembers. “And afterwards, this lady comes up to me – I know her now as a nurse from the hospital – she came up to me and said I’m really good at this, and she asked me if I would be their Mother Partner. I was like, wait, what is that?”
By this time, Cincinnati University Medical Center had decided to pursue Baby-Friendly designation. Having a Mother Partner is a key component of the designation process. So, Natashia went to the hospital, her infant daughter in tow, to learn about Baby-Friendly and what is meant to be a “Mother Partner.”
“So, I go up there and I’m learning about Baby-Friendly and I’m the Mother Partner and I’m telling them about all my horrible experiences when I delivered there before,” she says. “And I told them how, even though I was having health challenges, I still wanted to breastfeed and I left feeling like something was taken from me. I felt like I was robbed, like I abandoned my son.”
“Although my role as a Mother Partner was fairly limited in terms of the internal infrastructure and what they were working on behind doors, I felt like I was making a change at that point being a mom,” she recalls.
“Shifting from the mom’s perspective to a clinical perspective”
Her career took an important leap when, as she was approaching the end of her bachelor’s program, the hospital approached her with the opportunity to complete her hands-on clinical hours as a “Lactation Technician,” a temporary role created just for her.
“So, now I’m more engaged with patients and I’m learning more about lactation than I ever thought I would know,” she laughs. “And I’m shifting from the mom’s perspective to a clinical perspective.”
She also started preparing to take the IBCLC exam. She finished her bachelor’s degree and passed the IBCLC exam. By this time, the hospital was deep into the Baby-Friendly pathway, so they hired Natashia as an IBCLC.
“I helped them gear up for staff training and I was there for the whole walk-through process in preparation for the assessment,” Natashia recalls.
Cincinnati University Medical Center achieved Baby-Friendly designation in 2014.
“When we heard the news, it was so surreal, and it was very exciting,” she remembers. “For me, it made all the difference in the world, seeing some of the things that went into all the changes they made.”
“When I first heard about Baby-Friendly, I thought it was just about breastfeeding,” she says. “In general, I think that’s what the public thinks. But it’s so much more. It’s protecting me and my baby’s relationship. It means keeping us together. My thought process on Baby-Friendly completely changed in that hospital.”
“Not just about maternity”
This was especially rewarding for Natashia since Cincinnati University Medical Center is an inner-city hospital in the neighborhood where she grew up.
“We had a wide range of patients – uninsured, underinsured citizens, immigrants, and more” she says. “We were also a Level 1 trauma center, and we had a Level 3 NICU. Implementing Baby-Friendly was a hospital-wide effort. It’s not just about maternity.”
When pressed on this point, Natashia is quick to recall an emotional story that still seems fresh in her mind.
“I remember working with this lady. I thought she was going to die,” she recalls. “She was unconscious and they were fighting to save her life. I was helping the nurses in the SICU in how to use the breast pump and how do you make a hands-free bra so they can pump her while…”
Her voice cracks and she breaks away.
“And then I remember going back in to see her a couple of days later and she was awake and she had her baby with her,” she says. “People misunderstand Baby-Friendly and the impact it has on our entire staff and the whole hospital no matter where in the hospital the patient is. I can tell you countless times where the staff would bring in bassinets when moms were readmitted, even though the babies weren’t patients, so we could keep mom and baby together.”
“Baby-Friendly makes all the difference in the world,” she says. “I don’t think people understand the tremendous impact that it can have on people’s lives and on total health.”
But Natashia’s journey was just getting started. She began teaching lactation courses at University of Cincinnati Medical Center while she finished a master’s degree, and then started a doctoral program. She had her fourth child, a boy named Yasiel. And then the next chapter was a move to Philadelphia.
“I was looking for something different – and a more sustainable career,” she explains.
She transferred her teaching experience into a job teaching at Drexel University and worked in two different health clinics through the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. And she gave birth to her fifth child, a boy named Azrael.
Of course, she sought out a Baby-Friendly facility – University of Pennsylvania Hospital – for the delivery, but she once again experienced some challenges.
“I was discharged with a normal vaginal delivery, but then I didn’t feel well when I got home,” she says. “But at this point, I’ve worked with moms and babies for years and I was more seasoned. I checked my blood pressure and it was high.”
She was readmitted for severe preeclampsia and put on magnesium.
“Something needs to change”
“They told me it’s a hazard for me to stay with baby, that I might not be able to care for my baby while on magnesium,” she says. “As seasoned as I was at that time in terms of working in a hospital, in that moment I was a mom, and I was freaked out that they were going to take my baby from me. So, I’m like, I need to speak to ev-ery-body. Aren’t you guys Baby-Friendly? Magnesium is not contradictive to breastfeeding and my baby should be in the room with me. And they were like, ‘Who are you?’
“So, they got someone to come and sit in the room throughout the night, which meant no consequence to me because I was still up all night breastfeeding, as usual, while I was on magnesium. The next day, I gave them an earful: ‘If you guys are Baby-Friendly and this is the common practice, something needs to change.’”
And so began her next role as an activist and advocate. She finished her doctorate in September 2021 and now has four degrees, as well as licenses as a IBCLC and a certified health education specialist. She returned to Cincinnati and began to find a new focus for her boundless energies.
“During my time at Cincinnati University Medical Center, because of the demographic that we served at the hospital, it really opened my eyes to health disparities, especially related to the high infant mortality rates in the African American community,” she says. “Because the hospital is located in the neighborhood where I grew up, it was very personal for me.”
“Although I’m not actively practicing as a lactation consultant anymore, I do resonate as an advocate for health and racial justice,” she explains.
“Trying to decrease some of the barriers that exist”
In the past few months, Natashia has channeled this interest into starting a non-profit organization – Breast 4 Babes (www.breast4babes.org), a “Black Breastfeeding Education Awareness & Support Taskforce.”
“It actually grew out of my work on my dissertation, which was focused on the disparities that exist within the lactation profession in regard to having equal representation,” she says. “Part of my journey was being the only Black lactation consultant usually. I was often the shoulder to cry on for a lot of my patients because they felt like they could relate to me. And so that was kind of my eye-opener. The non-profit is geared toward continuing to work with moms with breastfeeding support and giving back to the community. But on a larger scale, it’s about trying to decrease some of the barriers that exist in terms of people of color obtaining their IBCLC.”
Natashia is also an active health equity advocate and now describes herself as a “Racial Health and Birth Justice Expert.”
“In my advocacy work, I talk about how perceptions of discrimination or racism or bias across marginalized groups impact overall care in terms of health gaps,” she says.
She is currently working with the CDC Foundation and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on health equity issues. And on top of all that, she’s caring for her elderly mother.
“I’m the type of person who knows there’s greater than just me,” she reflects. “And my thing is I have children and I’m not going to be in this space forever. And so whatever capacity I can make the world a better place for them and help a few other souls on the way, I’m all for it.”
“All the difference in the world”
Through it all, Baby-Friendly has been a constant anchor for Natashia.
“I really appreciate Baby-Friendly because I experienced what it was like to not have it and I experienced what it was like to have it, and it truly makes all the difference in the world,” she says. “As a lactation professional and as a public health professional, it really does bother me that people put out half-truths regarding Baby-Friendly. But you guys have my vote. I’m always rooting for Baby-Friendly.”