It's the middle of the night and new mom Katie Champ rocks back and forth in the dark, struggling to nurse newborn Kaylee.
Feeling isolated and worried that her baby might not be getting enough to eat, the Bloomington woman reaches for her new best friend -- an iPhone -- to check Facebook. She wonders: Who else in the world is awake and experiencing the same challenges?
While a new mom's need for support hasn't changed much over the years, the places she's finding it have. If it takes a village to raise a child, then Facebook, Twitter and thousands of "mommy blogs" proliferating the Web have become the virtual village.
"Without this group, I'm not sure what type of mother I would be," Champ said of the private Facebook community she belongs to called September Sweetpeas. The group comprises 300 women from all over the world who gave birth around the same month, including several from the Twin Cities. "I've learned more from these moms than I could from any book."
The virtual mommy network is growing at a staggering pace. Fourteen percent of American women with at least one child blog about parenting or turn to blogs for advice, according to a recent study by Scarborough Research. And about 3.9 million U.S. moms identify themselves as bloggers.
Young mothers such as Champ, who checks in with her online mommy group daily, spend twice as much time online as women who are not moms, according to the 2012 American Media Mom report, a joint study between Nielsen and BabyCenter.com. The number of visits to the BabyCenter's "community" page, where parents can find existing support groups or create their own, grew 259 percent from 2008 to 2011.
But these moms aren't just showing off their babies' latest photos. From postpartum depression to mother-in-law and marriage issues, no topic is off limits. What starts as an online exchange of ideas is often just the beginning of real-life friendships.
During those middle-of-the-night feedings, what -- aside from sleep -- do new moms long for?
Company. Someone who's been there, who can feel their pain, maybe even offer a few tips they haven't tried.
"When I'm up at 3 a.m., all I can do is take out my phone and start looking for answers," said Alison Cromie, a Farmington mom who initially experienced nursing difficulties. "In-person support groups are time-dependent; social media is immediate."
New moms aren't replacing the advice from their own mothers, existing friends and doctors, experts say, but are using social media to enhance their circles of support. They continue to forge relationships at day-care dropoff or through Early Childhood Family Education classes, but also connect online -- often creating Facebook groups -- to deepen their friendships.
"A lot of new moms today are digital natives," said Susan Walker, an associate professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota who studies parents' use of technology and social media. "They were brought up with these technologies, so it's within their culture and their comfort to be socially engaged with other mothers through these media."
Generic baby blogs started over a decade ago but have since splintered into diverse niche groups devoted to every parenting style imaginable. Whatever your beliefs -- "cry it out" vs. attachment parenting, breast vs. bottle, co-sleeping vs. crib, cloth vs. disposable diapers -- there's a blog, forum or support group at which other parents are likely to share your views.
No matter their style, mothers by their biochemical nature are primed for bonding both with their babies and their communities, said Sara Pearce, owner and founder of Amma Parenting Center in Edina. New mothers have high levels of oxytocin, the "hormone of love" that aids in bonding with their babies, but also primes bonding with other mothers.
"Even though so much has changed in the way we connect and communicate with each other, fundamentally, things have been the same for an eternity," said Pearce, also a nurse, certified nurse/midwife and lactation consultant. "Moms need other moms."
Susan Biewen, a psychologist for Fairview Health Services, which specializes in postpartum issues, said online support has been very helpful in alleviating postpartum depression, particularly in the first isolating weeks after giving birth.
But as children reach school age, wired moms are less likely to engage with other mothers in online communities.
"A mother's confidence grows as her kids get older," Biewen said. "Her resources are more established within her lifestyle either through her children's schools, activities or the neighborhood."
Becoming real-life friends
Just because new moms connect online doesn't mean they isolate themselves behind their computers and never leave the house to make real-life connections. Quite the opposite.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that the average social networking site user had more close ties than the average American and was half as likely to be socially isolated.
Missy Berggren, well known among mothers in the local social networking community, has formed many friendships with women she has never met face-to-face. Through Twitter, Facebook and her blog, the Marketing Mama, many of those connections evolved into real-life ones, too, over lunch meetings, "Tweetups" and local blogger events.
"The support and friendship is tangible, it is meaningful, it is very, very real," she said of her online friends. "Then when it transcends to face-to-face, it's even more powerful."
Berggren, who co-founded the Minnesota Blogger Conference, said the stigma attached to meeting online friends in real life is fading away.
"There used to be a time five years ago where social media was this thing that only existed online, but in the last few years that's changed," she said. "Now online is just the beginning of the relationship."
Berggren started connecting with local women via a message board on TheKnot.com in 2001 when she was planning her wedding. Over the next several years, many of the women kept communicating online and eventually met in person. They supported one another through pregnancy, motherhood and divorce. When one of the group's members lost her battle with cancer, they came together at her funeral.
"It was very profound," Berggren said. "And that was a relationship that began with a bunch of women online talking about Vera Wang wedding dresses."
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715