Britain’s Breastfeeding Chatbot is a Great Idea, Kinda Sucks

If only it could understand your actual question.

by Dave Baldwin
Originally Published: 
breastfeeding chatbot -- Start4Life

As any new mom who tries to breastfeed knows, that sh*t is hard. And nerve-racking. And rarely, if ever, goes off without a hiccup (both literally and figuratively). There’s a reason that more than half the new ‘mums’ in England stop breastfeeding after only two months. The rest, no doubt, have their lactation consultant on speed dial.

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Well, now the British National Health Service wants every new breastfeeding mother to have a personal lactation expert. And one who’s on-call in the middle of the night, no less, when the most frantic Google breastfeeding searches are made. To do that, they’ve debuted a virtual Breastfeeding Friend (BFF) ChatBot on Facebook Messenger to field questions 24-7. The only problem is that Start4Life, as it’s known, isn’t very good at its job.

Okay, it doesn’t totally suck — Start4Life just struggles with specifics. We jumped online and, after introducing ourselves, fired a few questions at it. We learned that while the criticism is well-founded, the bot’s not entirely unhelpful.

If you enter a keyword or phrase like “latching” or “mastitis,” the chatbot drops a well-versed reply and/or directs you to its library of extensive step-by-step photo guides. It also offers a list of common questions and breastfeeding topics — everything from “Expressing milk” and “Sore nipples” to “Crying and colic” and “Baby’s weight.” All of it is informative.

Try to have a conversation or ask a specific question, however, and this is not the case. In fact, Start4Life is quick to feign ignorance with a self-deprecating: “Sorry, I didn’t quite get that. I’m just a bot, after all…” or “I’m afraid I’m not the best with long phrases or single words, but I can understand short phrases like ‘Baby getting enough milk’ or ‘Enough milk'”.

Not the best with long phrases? Or single words? We got this reply a lot.

That said, follow the prompts and you’ll eventually arrive at some useful information. Whether Start4Life will actually answer your specific question isn’t clear. Still, one-handed at 4 a.m. with a crying infant and frayed nerves, it’s not a bad place to start. And definitely easier than firing up Google or searching for your hospital-issued copy of The Good Housekeeping Book of Child Care.

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