Telika Howard is no stranger to breastfeeding education and support. As a doula, mother of seven breastfed children, Breastfeed Chicago Board member, community educator, and Certified Lactation Counselor, she has deep personal and professional knowledge about the unique successes and challenges that arise in each breastfeeding relationship.
Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Telika lived in Memphis, Tennessee and Denver, Colorado before returning to Chicago with her family to the Rogers Park neighborhood in 2016. Telika’s own experiences with breastfeeding are what inspired her to provide support and education to other nursing parents in hopes of making their journeys easier than her own.
“I first became interested in breastfeeding in 1999 at 19 years old while pregnant with my first child,” Telika said. “I’m not quite sure what made me really want to breastfeed. I am African-American, and I had never seen anyone breastfeed. My mother didn’t breastfeed and was against it, my boyfriend’s mother didn’t breastfeed, and I didn’t know anyone who breastfed. However, I do remember some key times growing up where I noticed a mom breastfeeding and I thought it was sweet,” she said.
Early memories of watching a woman breastfeeding her child on Sesame Street and reading an article in a parenting magazine while still in high school on the benefits of breastfeeding stayed with Telika. “I was determined to breastfeed despite many challenges I faced,” she said.
“When I became pregnant, I asked my doctor about it and she confirmed that [breastfeeding] was the best thing,” Telika recalled. “I had already had in my mind that I was going to do the best for my baby because my mother was very negative and told me that I was going to be a horrible mother. I am a stubborn person and I do the opposite anyone says I’m going to do, so I think that determination is what really carried me through to breastfeed not only my oldest son, but all my children,” she said.
Telika successfully breastfed her first child until he was over a year old, nursing on demand and co-sleeping. She met her husband Xavier when her eldest was 15 months old, and the two went on to raise six more children together. “He remembers me fondly telling him how much I enjoyed breastfeeding and he noticed how healthy [my oldest] was,” Telika said.
Now Xavier is a vocal breastfeeding advocate! “He loves to stop moms when he sees them nursing to encourage them and tell them about what I do. He helped me keep going when breastfeeding our kids got tough. This is why I love to educate partners as well, so they know that their encouragement goes a long way,” she said.
Telika’s experiences birthing and breastfeeding each of her seven children were varied. Her oldest son was born in 1999 at a hospital that encouraged skin-to-skin and immediate initiation of breastfeeding after birth. But when her second child was born in 2001, nurses bottle-fed her daughter even as she asked them not to, and she fought hard to successfully nurse her for a year. Her third child was born in 2003 and Telika was glad that breastfeeding him went so well. “He was very attached to me. I remember my husband having to drive him to me while I was working so that I could nurse because he didn’t want to take the bottle!” she said.
Her fourth child was born in 2004, and a hip issue identified at birth landed her in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for a day. “They gave her a bottle and assumed I wasn’t going to breastfeed,” Telika said. “When I tried to breastfeed, the nurses kept saying she still needed a bottle because she was still fussy,” she said. She was glad to go home and breastfeed, and continued to for a year!
Six years later, she had an excellent experience breastfeeding her son. She discovered she was pregnant with twins when her son was six months old, and he weaned at nine months due to her pregnancy. Parenting and breastfeeding twins was a whole new world! “I only tandem nursed them maybe three times because they were on separate schedules. My second twin was losing weight and having a hard time gaining her birth weight back, so they said I had to supplement her. That was a battle, but I eventually went to just breastfeeding both of them and I breastfed my twins for nine months,” Telika recalled.
“I think all parents are shocked when the second or third baby comes along and changes up the breastfeeding game on them. Every breastfeeding experience is different because every baby is different,” said Breastfeed Chicago founder Katrina Pavlik.
Telika’s different experiences birthing and breastfeeding seven children provided Telika with a lot of insight into the right and wrong ways that healthcare providers support breastfeeding parents. She shared, “I think having my babies all over actually gave me a grand understanding of hospitals and medical providers in different areas of the country. I dealt with many of the same biases and issues everywhere.”
Telika became interested in supporting women, and especially women of color, throughout pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding due to the health disparities she saw and experienced as an African-American woman. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American women have the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation (60%) and lowest levels of continuation of breastfeeding at six months (28%) and 12 months (13%) compared with all other racial and ethnic groups in the United States. This stark reality motivated Telika to improve breastfeeding outcomes across communities of color.
“I thought about how I dealt with many different situations of mistreatment during birth and how I struggled with lack of support when breastfeeding, Telika said. “I got motivated to help other moms receive the support that I didn’t get because even though I didn’t give up, I saw many young moms who did and I felt bad. I wanted to get involved and help other moms like myself receive breastfeeding education and support,” she said.
Telika began educating new teen moms as a maternal-infant health outreach worker through Americorps at the Porter-Leath Children’s Center in Memphis and did home visits. She became an active volunteer with the Shelby County Breastfeeding Coalition (SCBC) in Memphis, Tennessee. Her volunteer focus became “reaching out to expecting women in the poorest of communities and using my story to encourage them to do the best for their child,” Telika said. “I attended health fairs and workshops and put together community baby showers. Memphis’ infant mortality rate was really bad–comparable to third world countries!” She was elected to serve on the SCBC Board of Directors overseeing outreach.
It was at that point that she decided to “change careers for good,” she remembered. She became a certified lactation counselor through a scholarship from the SCBC and then volunteered at Memphis’ largest urban hospital, Regional One Medical Center, while they were in the process of going Baby-Friendly. She worked under the registered nurses who were also International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC’s) and helped parents in labor and delivery and the NICU with breastfeeding, setting up pumps and answering questions.
“After moving back to my home state of Illinois, I worked as a doula and lactation educator at Birthways Chicago for a year and a half,” Telika said. She now wears many hats in the world of birthing and breastfeeding support! Telika is a member of the Breastfeed Chicago Board of Directors and is the owner of her own birth support company, Holy Birth Doula. She works at Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park in the non-profit’s Family Literacy program, and often engages with breastfeeding parents in need of support on her Facebook page, The Breast Boutique.
“Telika brings such a great perspective to our board and our organization. She’s able to bring a lot of ideas, expertise and energy to our work because she has lived and worked in so many places,” said Pavlik. “As a mom, she knows the struggle of overcoming others’ expectations and assumptions. We are so lucky to have her.”
Telika also teaches students about breastfeeding at Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. It all started in the 2016-2017 school year when her sixteen-year-old daughter’s friends asked her about breastfeeding. “She loves advocating for breastfeeding and she said her friends were asking her about it,” Telika said. “She’s gone with me to help when I’m out educating in the community as well,” she said.
Telika spoke with a biology teacher at Sullivan about being a guest speaker. She presented to students in biology classes about the makeup of breastmilk and how it affects the body. “I have a poster comparing the ingredients of breastmilk and formula and showed a video that discussed it while showing breastfeeding moms. The kids were very mature and had a lot of questions,” Telika said.
Telika is currently working with the same teacher at Sullivan to go back again this school year. “I also plan to pitch myself to expand to more high schools and do more work on the South Side,” she said.
Telika’s husband is from the South Side, and she sees a need for breastfeeding education and support there too. Many areas of the south side of Chicago lack the economic and health resources and supports found in other areas of the city. There is a documented correlation between level of income and breastfeeding initiation and duration. Breastfeeding education and peer counseling play an important role in breastfeeding success among people of all incomes, but support appears to be even more valuable among people with lower incomes living in urban areas. One study found that lower income women who received support from a peer counselor were 23% more likely to initiate breastfeeding, 37% more likely to exclusively breastfeed, and breastfed an average of seven weeks longer than people who did not receive support.
“Breastfeeding needs to be more commonplace,” Telika said, and she believes society can reach this goal by addressing multiple racial and health-based disparities in breastfeeding support and education. “More effort needs to be made,” she said. “Healthcare providers should offer the same quality care and education to all moms, regardless of race. We must teach teach medical professionals not to base their medical decisions on assumptions. If black moms receive financial help to become IBCLCs, more IBCLCs in urban communities will allow us to advocate and educate more,” Telika said.
Support is everything! You can support Telika’s ongoing work offering breastfeeding education in high schools here:
Have a breastfeeding question for Telika? Want to thank her for her hard work supporting breastfeeding in Chicago? Care to congratulate her for successfully breastfeeding seven kids? Comment below or find Telika on Twitter at @howardtelika!