Learning to Breast-Feed From an Avatar

Tim Bickmore of the College of Computer and Information Science and Roger Edwards of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences are using computer technology to improve breastfeeding education for expecting mothers. Courtesy image.

When two Northeastern University professors, one in health sciences and the other in computer and information science, came together to try to develop a system to help women breast-feed more successfully, their project joined their common interest and their two worlds. They created a lactation avatar: Tanya.

Tanya is knowledgeable. She can demonstrate techniques. She doesn’t mind repeating herself, and if she gets impatient with a mother who’s slow to master the football hold, she’ll never, ever show it. Plus, notes Tim Bickmore, who helped create the “computerized lactation-education consultant,” she’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and she doesn’t charge by the hour. “We wanted to create a tool that would be there when mothers needed it,” he said.

You can’t download a Tanya yet — this is a project in the very early development stages. But in a small pilot study, the two men found that their strategy, when made available to women during their hospital stay, “significantly increased both breast-feeding knowledge and the intent to breast-feed.”

Increasing knowledge and intent is a long way from a rousing success, but this is a technology with promise — and without, Professor Bickmore assured me, any intention to substitute for human lactation support. “Tanya isn’t a replacement,” he said. “She’s an additional resource.”

In the future, Professor Bickmore and his colleague, Prof. Roger Edwards, hope to offer an avatar that coaches women who are holding baby dolls containing embedded sensors on their technique, and a 3-D version of Tanya, and, of course, smartphone apps.

Could you have used an online lactation consultant at 4 a.m. in your first nights home with your infant? I’d have to see her in action to be convinced — but if she was available, I’d certainly have been willing to try.

By KJ DELL’ANTONIA, NYTimes writer. The original copy can be found here.