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Breastfeeding and Feminism Conference 2019 – Write Up by Ger Cahill

Reflective Piece from Breastfeeding and Feminism Conference, Roots and Wings, Looking Back, Looking Forward held in North Carolina, Wednesday 20th March to Friday 22nd March, 2019.    This conference is organised by the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

By Ger Cahill, IBCLC and ILCA Board Member.


I was again grateful that ALCI supported me in being able to attend this conference,  to fill the days between the Lactation Consultant Private Practice Conference in Philadelphia and my board meetings for ILCA.


As it was my second time to attend this conference, I was able to give more thought to the reasons why this conference exists in the first place, and I have been reflecting more on that than on the actual content since I returned.



The title said a lot about the content of this conference, which ranged from Leah Margulies and Margaret Kyenkya talking about the early days of the Nestle Boycott, the Innocenti Declaration and the beginnings of Baby Friendly, to a conversation with a 6 year old about her perspective on being a long term breastfeeder.


There was a lot of storytelling at this year’s conference which was encouraged by the attendance of keynote speaker Donna Washington.  She encouraged us all to tell our stories and not to be afraid to do as stories are what help to build communities.  There were ‘essays’ on topics such as “is the relationship important to providing effective breastfeeding support” by Louise Duursma, Elaine Burns and Nicole Bridges and Tanefer Camara speaking about trying to advocate for breastfeeding in the face of homelessness and gentrification.  Shela Hiraani spoke about her experiences in a disaster relief camp and Marthy Paynter talked to us about  setting up a non-profit to serve the Perinatal needs of criminalised women.  All of these stories were hugely inspiring.


However, what I keep coming back to is the very beginning of the conference when the following words from the conference handbook were considered so important that they were read out and then subsequently referred to constantly during the rest of the conference:


“To ensure that we create an inclusive environment for sharing our ideas and practices we invite everyone to:

  • No fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight
  • No shaming others
  • Interact in ways that reflect the inherent worth and dignity of each person
  • Honor the contributions and needs of those who have been historically marginalised and strive to be welcoming
  • Value diversity in thought, value and perspective
  • Welcome and respect the contributions of those who share views that are different from your own
  • Assume good intentions by others and have good intentions ourselves
  • Be curious, appreciative and informed about perspectives that differ from our own
  • Communicate with and about each other openly, kindly and respectfully
  • Describe our own opinions and experiences using the word “I”, mindful that our views may not be shared by others
  • Encourage and support the participation of everyone in the way that feels most comfortable for them.


To see written down some of these ‘rules’ of what I would consider to be normal behaviour initially took me by surprise. But I have been reflecting on them a lot since and examining my own behaviour;  yes it is ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ that I behave in the ways above, but do I always?  It has really resonated with me that I fall short on some of these, but that I view them as both normal and also something that I would strive for at all times in my interactions with people.


Believing in equity and diversity and being free to state that is something different to actually living it.  I can hear myself saying something about Travellers in the past as I write this and I am cringing.  My inherent bias is strong and I think this is what has been the learning for me from attending this conference.  To acknowledge that I have biases and that I always need to stay aware of them and not to deny that I have a bias but to work at understanding where that bias comes from in the first place.


I attended one breakout session called ‘Breastfeeding our children for the health of our nations: Healing Intergenerational tauma through lactation support’.  I attended because my colleague on the ILCA board Stephanie George an indigenous midwife and IBCLC from Canada was presenting, but right through the talk I was thinking about Irish Traveller women and the harm that has been done to them with our paternalistic ‘fixing’ of their problems.  I feel that in the future generations of young Irish Traveller women will have to heal from not being ‘allowed’ to breastfeed and there is much to be learnt from Indiginous communities and their belief that trauma takes 7 generations to heal and that there is lots of anger and hurt going to be manifested in this particular situation and we need to start preparing ourselves and not being defensive about it but accepting that this will be their truth.


This is a busy conference with lots of round tables and panels, so it is hard to give an overview of lots of the topics,  there are many impressions and many still to be reflected on, and yet I still come back to the the opening statements that this conference is for lots of practitioners from different disciplines,  policy makers, programme developers, educators, IBCLC’s, peer supporters and we all need to be able to communicate so that we can “identify and respond to the social, economic and political contexts that affect and shape infant feeding practices and experiences that enhance breastfeeding equity across populations and communities”.


This conference exists because people like Miriam Labbok recognised the inequities that exist in all communities when it comes to breastfeeding.  Meeting, discussing, sharing, having fun with people from a diversity of backgrounds, disciplines, experiences and cultures is amazing and I really enjoyed the networking as well as the chatting.  I also have been exposed to different viewpoints and new ideas and this leaves me with a sense of anticipation and excitement about the future of breastfeeding.


Ger Cahill received a €200 bursary from ALCI towards the costs of attending this conference, and wrote this article as part of the agreement. 

Further Reading


Presenting at the ILCA 2023 In-person Conference in Las Vegas:  A Personal Account


ILCA 2023 Conference Presentation: Building Policy Coalitions


WHO/Unicef Congress