One mother came in crying because she felt totally incompetent. Another, in tears, said her baby didn’t like her. It isn’t unusual for Kathleen McCue’s patients to be worried about breastfeeding: They’ll point out that their baby isn’t eating, or hasn’t gained weight, or is having trouble latching on to the breast. Some have more complex issues.
That’s why McCue, a lactation consultant who owns Metropolitan Breastfeeding in Bethesda, wrote Start Here: Breastfeeding and Infant Care with Humor and Common Sense, a book for new parents. It reflects her philosophy of offering a knowledgeable yet light assist to those struggling to get their little ones to nurse. “I know that if we take ourselves too seriously, we’re not going to make a lot of progress,” she says.
McCue, 69, who lives in Bethesda, is a family nurse practitioner with a doctorate. Her ability to prescribe medicine—for infected breasts, perhaps, or to increase milk supply—makes her lactation practice unusual in the Washington, D.C., area.
McCue’s doctoral work focused on inducing lactation in nonbiological lesbian partners. She recently was able to help a transgender woman produce 15 ounces of breast milk a day, she says. While it had already been established that trans women can breastfeed, the amount of milk was a big development. “This represents a significant result and step forward in supporting this incredibly underserved community,” says McCue, who also owns Metropolitan Breastfeeding offices in Columbia and Northern Virginia.
Back in the 1980s, long before she decided to become a lactation consultant, McCue had her own breastfeeding challenges. Her firstborn, Adam, was jaundiced and sleepy at the breast. Her daughter, Erin, was colicky and diagnosed with reflux. McCue was eventually successful in nursing them, but says finding qualified help was “really difficult” and that she almost gave up several times.
“I always say I’m working through my own past challenges by helping other women,” she says. “It’s really nice to put your hand on their shoulder, look into their eyes and tell them that you believe in them.”
While McCue says she has hit all her professional goals—her own practice, clinical research, published books, a video series for both a hospital system and an apparel company—she still would like to spread the word about breastfeeding. She plans to engage with more women on social media platforms.
“This is a service that women need,” she says. “Breastfeeding is not always easy—it can be a hell of a lot of effort. But it’s always worth it.”
McCue cites data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that breast milk is the best source of nutrition for most babies; can help protect them against certain illnesses and diseases; and can reduce the mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
“The benefits of breastfeeding,” she says, “are almost endless for both mom and baby.”
In her own words…
“Women notoriously have not had great confidence when it comes to breastfeeding. So a lot of times I’ll hold the baby and point out how much weight has been gained. Let’s say it’s 7 ounces. I’ll say to the moms, ‘You’re the only person on earth who can do this for your baby.’ I teach women how to trust their instincts. They just haven’t always had the proper education and encouragement.”
Learn by doing
“Going to a breastfeeding class before delivery is like going to a knitting class before you have needles and a ball of wool. You can say, ‘Knit one, purl two,’ but until you’re actually moving those needles around, it may not make any sense to you. Plus, you don’t know what kind of baby you’re going to get. There are some things we can learn ahead of time, but there are a lot of other things to flesh out after the baby is born.”
“Back in the day, we often lived closer to family and got a different kind of support. Now, like my own family, we’re more spread out geographically and don’t always have grandmothers around who also breastfed—at a time when women understand the importance of breastfeeding more than ever, given the shortage of formula in the midst of a global pandemic.”
Just another body part
“Recently when I met a close girlfriend at a coffee shop, a patient called my phone. I didn’t realize it, but I started asking questions like, ‘What do your nipples look like?’ When I hung up the phone, I noticed my lunch companion was bright red, as was the man at the next table. Breasts to me are like elbows or knees. I don’t think about them in the way most people do.”
“If I weren’t in this line of work, I think I would’ve become a stand-up comedian. I try to get patients to relax when they come into the practice, and humor lightens everything up. It takes the edge off things and allows people to be people. I don’t like a formal relationship with my patients. I want them to come in and feel like they’re with a friend. That’s why everybody calls me Kathy or Kathleen. This is such an intimate setting, and I often become their anchor to windward.”
This story appears in the November/December 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.