Advancing Public Health Through Breastfeeding: Meet Ellen Tolan
Breastfeeding is fundamental to public health. To learn more about the role our own state government plays in supporting breastfeeding, we interviewed Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition board member Ellen Tolan about her work in public health.
It’s National Public Health Week. You work for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), which must include many programs and initiatives. Which part do you work for?
I work in the Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition, Nutrition Division, as their State Breastfeeding Coordinator for the Massachusetts WIC Program. I also work with the Breastfeeding Initiative, which aims to provide comprehensive breastfeeding services and resources to families and support hospitals on the pathway to Baby-Friendly. In addition, I am a member of the Massachusetts Baby-Friendly Hospital Collaborative, a board member of Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition (MBC), and I participate in the NeoQIC Family Engagement Collaborative.
It’s great to hear that our state has strong staff and programmatic support of breastfeeding. Can you tell us more about your specific responsibilities?
As State Breastfeeding Coordinator for the Massachusetts WIC Program, I oversee breastfeeding services for our 31 local WIC programs. I work closely with our State Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Coordinator, Julie Forgit, who manages the Peer Counselor Program for our state, as well as local and regional WIC International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs). For WIC programs that do not have a dedicated IBCLC on staff, we have five regional IBCLCs (three that speak Spanish) who work statewide to support our peer counselors in helping families that may not have access to clinical lactation support. They have been an asset to our program and have helped so many families, especially through the pandemic and formula crisis.
The Massachusetts DPH is in the process of conducting a needs assessment, which will help us develop a statewide strategic plan for breastfeeding. Over the past year we have convened an internal work group and worked with graduate students from Boston University and Tufts University as part of this needs assessment. The work included key informant interviews with hospital staff, community supports, and internal DPH colleagues. We also rolled out a provider survey this past winter and we are currently analyzing the results from over 520 respondents. Our next step is to roll out a survey to families this spring.
During National Public Health Week, each day has a different theme. Some of the daily themes are Community, Reproductive Health, and Food and Nutrition. Talk about one of those areas and what it means to you as a public health professional.
I have been committed to public health, specifically maternal and child health, since I graduated from college. I have had the privilege to work for the WIC Program since 1994, so I have experience with all of these themes. It is vital to provide all families with access to culturally sensitive nutrition and health education. Working for WIC has been such a rewarding and valuable experience. I am so happy I stayed in this field of work.
How does your work relate to the mission and goals of the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition?
MBC provides linkages to breastfeeding support and education, which aligns with the work that I do for WIC and MDPH. I have participated in MBC since I became the State Breastfeeding Coordinator in 2012 and it’s been an honor to work alongside current and past members. The work MBC is doing now to grow a more diverse group of lactation support providers is so important. Our state especially needs more IBCLCs that speak different languages and can help non-English-speaking families navigate complex lactation issues. The DRIVE committee has been doing such great work in supporting these efforts.
How long have you served on the board? What is your role on the board?
I have been on the board, serving as Clerk, for several years. I maintain the membership listing, help plan the annual conferences with our conference committee members, and attend and take minutes for our monthly meetings.
Why were you interested in joining the board? What do you enjoy about it?
Marsha Walker encouraged me to join the board several years ago. I value the passion and camaraderie with other board members. We have an amazing group of women! It’s been a great pleasure to work with such a passionate group of women who want to make breastfeeding support accessible to all families in the Commonwealth.
Tell us about your professional background, and how you came to work in public health.
I graduated from Syracuse University in 1994 with a BS in Clinical Dietetics. While I thought I would start working as a Registered Dietitian in a hospital setting, my first job was as a WIC Nutritionist in Uphams Corner Health Center in Dorchester. I soon learned how rewarding it was to work in the community/public health setting.
Before coming to the state WIC office in 2010, I served as Senior Nutritionist at the East Boston WIC program. It was such a rich experience working with so many people of different cultures. Every day I was able to work with pregnant and breastfeeding women, which taught me so much. Before working at WIC, I did not know much about lactation, as my undergraduate courses offered very little exposure. But during my early years on the job, and throughout my experiences in WIC, I’ve gained so much knowledge from our participants and co-workers about breastfeeding.
I have also benefited from the fact that the WIC program has always encouraged and supported training and continuing education. I had the opportunity to attend several breastfeeding trainings, including the Certified Lactation Counselor course back in 1998. Later, in 2004, I became an IBCLC. If anyone wants to learn about breastfeeding and focus on a career in lactation, WIC is the perfect place to work!
What would you like to tell us about your family and personal background?
I live on the North Shore with my husband and two teenage sons, both of whom were fully breastfed for at least a year.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I was fortunate to bring both the boys with me to work in East Boston a few days per week, and to have access to pumping space and break time. The WIC Director and staff were supportive of breastfeeding.
Thank you for your dedication to families, Ellen! We hope this interview inspires others to pursue careers in breastfeeding and public health.