By Jane Schmucker
This story – a somebody-said-something-they-shouldn't-have story – went viral overnight and led to the cancellation of two days of dental appointments for a Rochester, NY practice, and nationwide bad press.
The topic was breastfeeding.
But it could be about almost anything. And it could have happened to any dental practice located almost anywhere.
The power of social media is real and colossal. It has changed how news is delivered, changed how fast events become news. Even changed what is news.
On the morning of December 1, a young mother took her 5-year-old daughter to a dental checkup and brought along her 9-month-old daughter. The baby fussed and the mother was about to breastfeed when Robin C. Craig, DDS, a dentist at Wilson Dental in Irondequoit, NY (Rochester), reportedly indicated she was uncomfortable with that. The mother was stunned and felt humiliated. She went home and posted about the exchange on social media.
These days many young mothers are members of social media groups that focus on all sorts of parenting topics. There are many groups on Facebook for cloth-diapering alone. Mom Tiffany Elliott’s post was quickly shared among such groups, spreading word of what happened exponentially faster than if it had just been witnessed by her own circle of friends.
Dianne Cassidy, a lactation consultant in the greater Rochester area, heard about it by dinnertime, when her dining partner, a birthing coach, asked, “Did you see that post on Facebook?”
By Sunday, the story was getting traditional local media attention and mothers were organizing a “nurse-in,” with plans to nurse their babies under the overhang in front of the Wilson Dental office the next day.
Dr. Michael Wilson, the founder and owner of Wilson Dental, which has five offices in New York state, responded that while Dr. Craig was, indeed, uncomfortable, she intended simply to step out of the room until Elliott had finished breastfeeding. According to Dr. Wilson, who was not present at the time of the interaction, Dr. Craig wasn’t able to fully explain her intention because Elliott became instantly angry and defensive, cutting off the conversation.
On Monday, faced with the escalating controversy, the Wilson Dental office in Rochester closed – not just for that day but the next day, too.
That gave the mothers more time to organize. They certainly felt they had more of a reason. Now the mothers were also upset about the dental office inconveniencing all the patients who had been scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the story was making its way into the national press.
By Tuesday, the story was published by USA Today. Rochester's general-circulation newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, is owned by Gannett, which often prints news from the chain's smaller papers in its flagship paper, USA Today. This story also hit Yahoo! News about the same time.
The Yahoo! story reported: “The Facebook post [Ms. Elliott] created to vent about the ordeal now has 13,000 reactions, almost 8,000 shares, and more than 3,600 comments primarily from fellow moms who applaud her decision to speak up.
“I am so sorry that happened to you,” one mother wrote. “I am also glad you stood up for yourself and your child. I don’t understand how someone can be so ignorant. You feed that baby wherever, whenever needed!”
On Wednesday, the New York Post carried the story, the dental office reopened, and the nurse-in started about the same time, outside in front of the office.
Over the course of the day there were about 30 mothers, some with babies and others who had older children. The local television stations and newspaper had reporters on the scene.
Almost all of the passersby were either supportive or noncommittal, although one older man who was headed to the diner next to the dental office was accusatory, saying something to the effect of, “You girls are just looking for money,” Ms. Cassidy recalled.
Money, she said, was never in the equation, and the women at the nurse-in declined a donation that was offered to them by a passerby. The nurse-in was all about calling attention to the fact that mothers are sometimes discouraged from breastfeeding, even though almost all medical advice recommends it.
It’s not unusual for young mothers to hear a remark – be it from a stranger or a relative – that puts breastfeeding their baby into question. Maybe someone saying they shouldn’t be breastfeeding where they are, although in New York there’s a law that says women can breastfeed anywhere. Maybe someone exclaiming, “You’re still breastfeeding that baby!” in reference to a growing child.
Of the thousands of mothers that Ms. Cassidy has worked with over more than a dozen years in hospitals, groups, and individual consultations, she guesses that half have heard such a comment at one point.
What made this particular story take off, she theorizes, is that the exchange was with a medical professional, in a medical office.
“That made it more appalling,” Ms. Cassidy told Incisor. “That is why we made such a big deal of it.”
The fact that the dentist in question was a woman also seemed to give the story momentum.
“A lot of mothers would expect to find some empathy” from a woman, Ms. Cassidy remarked.
Parents magazine had the story that Thursday, with the headline Mom slams dentist as ‘Dr. Ignorant’ after alleged breastfeeding shaming incident.
People magazine’s version of the story, posted the following Monday, used the headline, “Mom speaks out after she was shamed for breastfeeding at her child’s dentist: ‘I felt humiliated.’”
How could this train wreck have been prevented?
For starters, the exchange never should have happened, said Dr. Rick Thiriot, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Dental Medicine associate dean of clinical services and associate professor-in-residence.
“I had mothers breastfeeding in my office and I thought it was a natural thing,” Dr. Thiriot said of his days in practice. “I’d rather have a child that’s not crying.”
Ms. Cassidy, the lactation consultant, wondered why the dentist didn’t just step away if she was uncomfortable with breastfeeding: Say she had to take a phone call, fetch a piece of equipment, check in on another patient, most any excuse would do. A 9-month-old baby would be finished nursing in just a few minutes.
Dr. Thiriot had even stronger words for the practice.
“I think the response by Wilson Dental was kind of half-assed,” he said.
The first post that Wilson Dental made on its Facebook page did not include an apology to Ms. Elliott, according to her account on the CafeMom social networking site. When Wilson Dental subsequently added an apology, it struck Ms. Elliott as an afterthought. And she didn’t immediately trust the promise of staff training, because her request for that in the office immediately following the exchange was not well-received, according to the mom.
The public-at-large was apparently unhappy too, and commented to that effect. Wilson Dental responded by deactivating its Facebook site.
A far better response, Dr. Thiriot said, would have been for the dental office leadership to reach the patient immediately and try to smooth out the situation.
“I think the patients were not served correctly if [the office was] canceling appointments,” he said.
Will the practice lose patients over this?
“Who knows. You’ll have to see what the community will bear,” Dr. Thiriot said, adding that some practices have been able to stay in business despite far worse public relations disasters.
The hope of the mother, Ms. Elliott; the lactation consultant, Ms. Cassidy; the university expert, Dr. Thiriot; and many of the folks commenting on various social media sites is that the dental office exchange – while unfortunate for all involved – might raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding and the challenges faced by mothers of young children.
“At the end of the day I am glad it happened to me,” Ms. Elliott said on CafeMom. “Well, me today that is. Had it happened to me six years ago with my first, it surely would have destroyed what little nursing relationship we had. Had it been done to another new mom or one struggling with breastfeeding, this doctor would have crushed not only her spirit, but her nursing relationship with her baby. I know this because I was her six years ago. I know this because hundreds, if not thousands of women have commented on my post stating that this is the reason they do not nurse in public.”
Dr. Thiriot said acceptance of breastfeeding in public is common sense: “The mom has to feed the child when the child’s hungry.”
Ms. Cassidy summed it up simply: “Mothers need more support in this society.”
Author: Contributing writer Jane Schmucker is a veteran journalist who has covered health and business topics. Now freelancing, she reported and edited for more than 22 years at The Blade (Toledo, Ohio). She has also worked on the rewrite desk for USA Today in Arlington, VA.
Also by Jane Schmucker:
- Being a Good Mother and Being a Good Dentist: Are the Two Roles Compatible?
- OSU College of Dentistry’s ‘OHIO Project’ is a Model of Service Learning at Its Best
- Practice Management: Do You Recommend That Your Patients Drive a Mercedes or a Ford (Toothbrush, That Is)?
- After Hours: Working with Patients Who’ll Bite Your Head Off. Literally.
- Practice Management: When a Simple, ‘How Are You,’ Unleashes a Tale of Woe
- Practice Management: Refer a new patient for a chance to win a car. Is there a limit?