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Your New Breastfeeding Consultant: An Avatar?

Would you prefer to hear information from a real nurse, or from a computer? Your answer might depend upon the kind of information being delivered, as well as the context (i.e. is the computer in your own home, where you can half-listen while you also sort your inbox and eat a snack? Because in that case…), but I figure that if I’m receiving the kind of information a nurse might need to give me, I’d like the nurse to be a real person so that I can ask questions if I have them. Turns out I’m in the minority, though; 74 percent of participants asked this question in a study opted for the computer. And now the Northeastern University-based reasearcher behind that study has helped to carry out another in which a lactation consultant avatar (a computer-generated “person”) shared her knowledge and skills with 15 women. Turns out the avatar, who was closely modeled after a real lactation consultant — right down to her expressions and gestures — was good at her job, too; the participants demonstrated an increased intent to breastfeed, as well as knowledge around breastfeeding, after their time with the avatar.

The research team behind the study plan to conduct another to see if an avatar consultant will have a similarly positive impact on breastfeeding duration. They’ve clearly stated, too, that these avatars are intended to complement—rather than replace—the human-to-human experience, and that avatar effectiveness doesn’t let hospitals off the hook on information delivery. I think it’s pretty cool that the study’s participants learned from the avatar consultant, and that their attitudes toward breastfeeding were even impacted by the experience, but I also feel like, sure, obviously additional information exposure (presented by a friendly, person-like character) will result in more knowledge and increased positive attitudes toward a subject. As real people, we learn when information is presented well, and we also act a lot like sheep (in the study’s case, this was a good thing), following the lead of whoever’s “talking” to us through our ubiquitous screens. I’m not surprised by this study’s results.

When it comes to breastfeeding, though, consultants can be most useful in helping women put the information they’ve gathered into action. Babies don’t always latch quite right, and women sometimes need help adjusting their positioning or holds based on their unique body shapes, any discomfort they might be experiencing, and so forth. Breastfeeding consultants can also be indispensable in trouble-shooting. Mine figured out that baby Kaspar had reflux (the nurses at the hospital kept telling me he was crying because he was “still hungry”), and a friend of mine hired a consultant who discovered her son couldn’t latch because he was tongue-tied. As with all virtual tools, a computerized consultant wouldn’t be able to customize its assistance to meet the unique needs of each client.

Women who seek out breastfeeding consultant, however, are generally those who already intend to breastfeed; it sounds like the women who participated in the study may not have had much of a base of knowledge—or plan around breastfeeding—in place before meeting the ‘avatar.’ So while part of my thinks, “Why bother making an avatar that moves and speaks like a real consultant? Just go for the real thing!”, I also recognize the potential for the ‘avatar’ to reach a broader audience, as well as greater numbers of women, than any individual breastfeeding consultant would be able to. It might even prompt women who wouldn’t otherwise breastfeed to request time with real consultants as follow-up, once they’re primed to get their babies on the boob.

While it’s cool, too, that the researchers made clear that hospitals can’t replace their nurses (and, presumably, their on-staff breastfeeding consultants) with avatars, but instead might be able to create a complementary system utilizing both, I remember finding it quite difficult to get any decent information — as well as time with a breastfeeding consultant (I asked for one as soon as Kas was born; she didn’t arrive until I was checking out) — in the hospital after Kaspar was born. The quality of nurses varied greatly among the staff, too. One of them was really mean! Perhaps avatars can be used to ensure that patients get at least a quality baseline of information in an accessible way, but hospitals definitely need to step up, too, and provide the real (expert) person — whether nurse or consultant — for patients to ask questions of and learn from, whether or not they’ve had a visit with an avatar first.

Do you think avatar breastfeeding consultants are a good idea? Do you think they’ll potentially improve breastfeeding rates and experiences? Did you ever meet with a real breastfeeding consultant? Could an avatar have done the same job?