Dana Balser poses for a photo with her baby boy.
Dana Balser continued breastfeeding thanks to the help of a support group of lactation experts and other mothers. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

When Dana Balser started experiencing problems breastfeeding her newborn son, she recalled a brochure she received as she left the hospital.

Before giving up on her attempt to breastfeed, Balser turned to Spectrum Health Healthier Community’s breastfeeding support group for help. 

For about 18 years, Mary Oleniczak, RN, IBCLC, and Kathy Feenstra, a certified lactation counselor, have facilitated the breastfeeding support groups.

In the early weeks of breastfeeding, Oleniczak and Feenstra typically help moms with sleepy babies and immediately address any pain. They also help moms know if their child is eating enough. One of the important things is making sure infants latch correctly, which Oleniczak said can be challenging.

Initially, 29-year-old Balser said her son, Greyson, was an aggressive sucker, which left her sore and with cracked and bleeding nipples.

The group helped determine that Greyson had a difficult time properly latching because he had a lip tie, meaning the skin under his top lip was connected tightly. 

Balser said she wanted to continue breastfeeding her son, and the support group helped her forge on. Otherwise, she said, she doesn’t think she would have pushed through the challenges much past Week 2.

“This group is the only reason that I’m still breastfeeding,” she affirmed.

Grand Rapids resident Melissa Finkbeiner also thanks the support group for her success in breastfeeding her firstborn child.

When Finkbeiner gave birth to her son, Nolan, she turned to Oleniczak and Feenstra for assistance.

Melissa Finkbeiner sits on a couch with her son and baby daughter.
Melissa Finkbeiner, shown here with her son and baby daughter, found success in breastfeeding and likes to help other moms on their journeys. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Nolan was born with Down syndrome and resided in the neonatal intensive care unit for five days. He had low muscle tone in his mouth and trouble coordinating his muscles.

Since Nolan had difficulties feeding, the lactation consultant encouraged Finkbeiner to try the support group. Two weeks after giving birth, Finkbeiner attended the group with Nolan.

They gave her tips and advice about making it easier to nurse, and helped her figure out how to adapt her method to best meet her son’s needs. Finkbeiner said it’s advice she couldn’t have received anywhere else.

Finkbeiner, 30, said breastfeeding Nolan meant even more because he has a higher chance of becoming ill. During the 18 months of breastfeeding, Nolan never became ill.

If not for the group, Finkbeiner has a hard time believing she would have continued breastfeeding, let alone breastfeeding for as long as she did.

“I owe a lot to them. I know I couldn’t have continued without their help,” she said. “I would have been lost.”

Finkbeiner attended the group for several weeks after she started getting the hang of breastfeeding Noah because it was also an opportunity to meet other mothers and help if they, too, had questions.

While the main focus of the support group is to help mothers overcome breastfeeding challenges, Balser said it’s more than that.

“You know you’re not alone in how you’re feeling,” she said, discussing how the moms share tips, hopes and expectations.

Now that Balser’s son is 5 months old, she continues attending because there are new challenges, and because she can provide advice and support for new moms just starting out on their breastfeeding journey.

Finkbeiner said it’s nice knowing they aren’t alone, because the other mothers experience similar things.

Balser and her husband moved to Wayland, Michigan, while she was pregnant. With no family around, Balser said the support group has “been like second mothers” to her.

After the birth of her second child, Maggie, a few months ago, Finkbeiner returned to the support group. Finkbeiner said seeing Oleniczak and Feenstra was like seeing friends again. 

Assisting mothers in their breastfeeding journey isn’t just a job for Oleniczak, it’s a big part of her life. She urges new moms to consider breastfeeding support groups to find encouragement and answers to their questions.

“You’re around like-minded people who understand what you’re going through,” Balser said. “They’re really supportive and uplifting.”